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What Is Consumer 3D Printing, And Does It Really Exist?

 MakerBot’s then-CEO, Bre Pettis, presents the Replicator 2X at the height of consumer interest in 3D printing [Source: Fabbaloo]
MakerBot’s then-CEO, Bre Pettis, presents the Replicator 2X at the height of consumer interest in 3D printing [Source: Fabbaloo]

I have some thought about what’s known as “Consumer 3D Printing”. 

This post was triggered by an eruption of controversy over the past weekend in 3D print social media, where a story on another publication proclaimed that “Consumer 3D Printing Is Dead”. Predictably, multiple parties (including many notables in the 3D print space) did not agree with that assessment, including one Josef Prusa, who said: 

 Josef Prusa believes consumer 3D printing is alive and well [Source: Twitter]
Josef Prusa believes consumer 3D printing is alive and well [Source: Twitter]

In the story on 3Dprint.com, the author wrote:

“What leads me to believe this is that the caliber and number of 3D printing exhibitors at this year’s show continues a stark downward trend of the last several years, with 3D printing vendors from incumbents to new-entrants moving away from entertaining consumers and toward catering for professionals. This year’s showing of consumer 3D printing shows us what the end of a hype cycle looks like. Consumer 3D printing is dead; the next decade belongs to the rise of industrial additive manufacturing.”

Prusa, whose company recently announced they sold near 70,000 3D printers in 2019 alone, along with over 180,000 spools of filament, rightly disagreed with this proclamation. 

Many of Prusa’s products, and those from manufacturers of similarly-capable 3D printers, are bought by individuals and not by businesses. One may thus suspect that there is a consumer market being addressed by Prusa and multiple other parties, apparently quite successfully. 

What Is The Consumer Market?

My thought is that there is a misunderstanding of terminology here. 

The “consumer market”, in the world of sales, literally means all the consumers. These are everyday people and there are vast numbers of them. According to Wikipedia, the top ten consumer markets spend an astonishing US$40T (yes, “T”). A consumer product might hope to capture some percentage of that spending. Even a slim percentage would be enormously profitable. 

According to my brief research, there are almost 500M households in USA, Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan. And there are many more countries beyond those. But let’s just use those for now. 

A consumer product would be one that would be normally purchased and used in a large proportion of these households. For example, there are 95M microwave ovens in the US, where there are 128M households, or about 75% penetration. In the list of countries above, that would suggest there are around 400M microwave ovens in operation. 

That’s a lot of product!

Promoting Consumer 3D Printing

And that’s exactly why, in 2009 and subsequent years, certain parties in the 3D printing universe (namely MakerBot and 3D Systems) sought to promote the idea of “consumer 3D printing”. I recall the then-CEO of 3D Systems literally suggesting that one could have a 3D printer in every room in your home. I recall then-MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis telling me, in person, that everyone is a maker. In other words, everyone should buy a 3D printer. 

What they were trying to do is normalize the idea that 3D printers could indeed be sold into the vast consumer market. They wanted to sell 400M machines, the same number as microwave ovens. 

The profits would be staggeringly enormous. The stock prices would be high. In fact, the stock prices of these and other companies DID rise very high, in some cases by 10X in a short period. MakerBot was even sold for a heart-stopping US$400M in 2013. 

MakerBot, in particular, attempted to promote their 3D printer as a consumer device by — what else — showing up at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (emphasis on “Consumer”, of course.) They would announce new products, like the Replicator 2X in front of dozens of journalists. When MakerBot first appeared at CES, no other 3D printer companies were present. 

That changed as MakerBot made repeated appearances there, usually to announce a new product. I even watched a few of these announcements in person. Because MakerBot was obtaining such great publicity at CES, 3D Systems, who at the time also had a consumer strategy, set up shop at the show. But if 3D Systems was there, then their competitors ALSO had to be at the show. Thus you soon saw Stratasys and others (even Prusa Research) at CES. 

Those big numbers and marketing activity were premised on the idea that somehow these companies could eventually deeply penetrate the huge consumer market and sell tens of millions of devices. 

That didn’t happen. 

The reasons for the diminished penetration of the consumer market are well-known, and include aspects such as:

  • Equipment too expensive

  • Equipment less reliable than most other consumer devices

  • General lack of understanding of what the machine could and could not do

  • General lack of understating of how to properly use the machine

  • General lack of an ability to create one’s own 3D models

  • Difficulty in obtaining desired 3D content to 3D print (often due to licensing issues)

Essentially, there was no compelling reason for the general consumer to push through these issues and succeed at 3D printing. It was simply too hard for the majority of people. 

Consumer 3D Printing Crash

The jig was up and the stock prices crashed. Many 3D printer manufacturers failed or had to do drastic business pivots to remain afloat. Some succeeded wildly, but others simply faded away. 

Ironically, MakerBot was one of the first 3D print companies to stop attending CES. But the momentum they had started years ago continued after they left, although diminishing each year. We stopped attending two years ago because the show did not contain sufficient 3D print content for us. The lack of 3D print content at that particular event has less to do with the level of consumer interest than the need to “be there if my competitor is there”. And they aren’t. We offered some critical advice to 3D printer companies attending CES two years ago.

DIY 3D Printing

Did consumers abandon 3D printing at that point? 

The answer is yes and no. By far the majority of people did abandon the tech. Today the average person has some notion of what 3D printing is, simply because of the interest held years ago. But they don’t use 3D printing at all today. 

Meanwhile there remained a segment within the consumer market that continued to use 3D printing. It is what I might call the “DIY” market, for lack of a better word. These are individuals who are more highly skilled and persistent than the average consumer and totally capable of overcoming the limitations listed above. And there are a lot of them. 

But not hundreds of millions. 

I don’t know how big the DIY market could be. It might be millions, as Prusa Research and other companies continue to sell large quantities of equipment. But it’s not hundreds of millions. 

Consumer and Industrial 3D Printer Markets

In a strange sense, both Prusa and the unnamed 3Dprint.com author are correct about the 3D print consumer market. 

There is currently no true “consumer market” of hundreds of millions of potential 3D printer customers. That won’t happen until the constraints above are resolved. But at the same time there IS definitely a large DIY consumer market of perhaps several millions potential customers. Prusa Research and other similar companies are making enormous amounts of money providing great products for that market and will continue to do so. 

And yes, there is an industrial 3D printing, or should I say, Additive Manufacturing, market that is also quite large. HP likes to say there is a US$12T manufacturing opportunity, and they’re right. There are now many very successful 3D printer manufacturers addressing the professional and industrial markets. But they aren’t addressing the DIY consumer market; it’s apples and oranges here. 

Future 3D Printer Consumer Market

Will there ever be a time when 3D printers are actually sold to 90% of households? I am still optimistic about this happening, although to achieve that level of sales there must be several major breakthroughs in technology that shatter the barriers. Most importantly, though, there would have to be a switch in thinking from product manufacturers to allow for 3D printing end products instead of traditionally shipping and stocking them in retail stores. That is unlikely to happen as long as they can force you to pay US$39 for a replacement dishwasher knob instead of 3D printing your own copy for US$1 in plastic. 

Then all consumers will finally have the long-sought compelling reason to use 3D printers. 

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