How Many 3D Printers Are There, Really?

By on May 31st, 2015 in Ideas

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This is a question that should be of utmost importance to all in the 3D printing world: how many 3D printers exist? 

The reason this factor is of such importance is that it defines the current size of the 3D printing market, since the number of printers has some relationship with the number of potential 3D printing customers. Not having a good handle on this number may mean startup companies create poor estimates of future growth and thus bad things happen. 

The common understanding is that there must be several hundred thousand personal 3D printers in existence. There are of course, industrial 3D printers as well, but they number far less than the inexpensive and prolific desktop machines. The industrial market is quite different, and we’ll look at that in the future. But now, let’s examine the number of desktop 3D printers. 

There are very few reliable statistics on this matter, generally because most 3D printer manufacturers do not publish them. Publication would permit their competitors and industry analysts to make judgements on their performance that could affect stock prices, investor decisions and more. So, disclosure is best avoided by conservative companies. 

But there are a few numbers we do have access to. 

One key statistic can be found in Stratasys’ recent quarterly report, where they blatantly say: 

The Company sold 7,536 3D printing and additive manufacturing systems during the quarter, and on a pro forma combined basis, has sold a total of 129,197 systems worldwide as of March 31, 2015.

This tells us a lot. First, while Stratasys has been making industrial machines for decades, by far the majority of the total machine count must be from MakerBot’s activities. MakerBot is no doubt the highest volume personal 3D printer made. 

However, it’s our understanding that MakerBot sold only approximately 1,500 CupCakes and Thing-O-Matics (each). Their Replicator series has much higher volume, but it seems clear there have been something not much higher than 100,000 units sold in total. 

But what of other vendors? We suspect all have had volumes quite a bit less than MakerBot, including 3D Systems, who could be the next most popular manufacturer, in terms of total units sold. We speculate the number of machines sold is likely in the 250,000 range at this point. 

But here’s the point: that’s systems sold EVER. Not systems in ACTIVE use. We believe the number of people actually using personal 3D printers is dramatically less than this number. Consider these possibilities: 

  • Due to technological advancement, many older machines have been made obsolete and have been replaced by better machines. In fact, our lab has two “retired” machines that are no longer operational. 
  • Anecdotal evidence from 3D printer repair shops and several online services indicate that many people don’t know how to fix their machines when they break – and they simply abandon using them. We suspect a huge portion of sold machines today are sitting idle – and broken in some way. 3D printers are notoriously fragile and there are few options for most people to have them repaired without getting out tools and doing it themselves. 
  • Some machines have been purchased and never used as they were gifted to people who didn’t know what to do with them. We even recently heard of a MakerBot CupCake kit – still unassembled to this day!
  • An increasing portion of personal 3D printers have been sold to institutions who use them for specific business purposes – in other words, these machines often cannot be counted for business planning, as their owners are not really potential customers. 
  • Speaking of customers, those who do operate 3D printers competently often have more than one printer, meaning there’s really only one customer behind multiple machine unit sales. 

Let’s break it down: 

  • Of 250,000 units, we suspect as many as half are retired or unused, leaving around 125,000 units.
  • Of those, another third could be non-functioning due to unrepaired damage, leaving around 80,000 units.
  • Of those, perhaps half are owned by schools or manufacturers, leaving around 40,000 units.
  • Then if the average competent 3D printer operator has say, two machines in their workshop, this suggests there could be as few as 20,000 potential customers for 3D printing ventures. 

Sure, these are what we’d call “scientific wild ass guesses” and obviously inaccurate, but the point is this: the market for 3D printing venture is not millions of machines, or even hundreds of thousands. It is most likely in the tens of thousands range. 

For a 3D printing startup, this is critical information. If a venture were to assume a market of 300,000 customers, they’d be terribly wrong and surprised to find far fewer sales than anticipated. 

How to fix this? Well, that’s a story for another day. 

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!