Why you’ll probably never buy a 3D printer

3D printing
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30 June 2016 | 0

While 3D printer sales will experience healthy growth over the next four years, consumer machines remain a technology in search of a purpose, according to researcher IDC.

3D printers, materials and services in the US grew by almost 20% in 2015 compared to the year before, representing $2.5 billion (€2.26 billion) market. And 3D printer shipments are expected to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 16% through 2020, according to IDC’s US 3D Printer Forecast, 2016-2020.

Revenue from 3D printing hardware alone is expected to grow from $815 million (€736 million) last year to $1.96 billion (€1.77 billion) in 2020.

The largest technology segment within the 3D printing market is fused filament fabrication or fused deposition modelling (FDM/FFF). Last year, FFF or FDM printers made up 76% of the 3D printers shipped in the US.

While the majority of those printers are at the low end of the market, the consumer segment “has clearly not materialized as many had predicted,” IDC said. That is pushing many 3D printer makers to shift toward producing higher-end machines aimed at the education and professional prototyping markets.

Shipments in the very low-end, where 3D printers sell for below $1,000 (€903), are still projected to grow more than 12% annually through 2020. But the market remains relatively small.

Killer app?
“I know it is a bit of a cliché, but I believe the ‘killer app’ that would drive 3D printing in the consumer space has not materialised yet,” said Tim Greene, research director for IDC’s Hardcopy Solutions. “Already the 3D printer mix in the US has changed over the last 12 to 24 months. While there are still a lot of shipments into the DIY/consumer market, tremendous growth remains in the segments with a more professional and manufacturing orientation.

Simply put, 3D printers have yet to find their spot next to the inkjet printer in the home.

The sub-$1,000 3D printer category is the slowest-growing segment based on the reduced demand for consumer-type 3D printers in the US market, IDC found. Many of the suppliers of lower-priced machines have added features and capabilities to their printers to move up into higher-priced hardware.

Printers in the sub-$1,000 price category are expected to go from just over 49,900 shipments in 2015 to over 90,750 printers in 2020. That is a five-year annual growth rate of 12.7%.

In its report, IDC said it “has never been a big believer” in the consumer 3D printing market.

“This is being borne out somewhat with many of the suppliers in that segment recognising that the consumer segment has materialised differently than expected. While some suppliers continue to sell very low-end 3D printers at prices below $300 (€271), many have recognised that consumer users will not run enough material, or won’t buy the materials from their printer manufacturer, to make up for selling printers at such low prices,” the report said.

In the hunt for the “killer application,” many 3D printer manufacturers have attempted to link the machines with video games, enabling players to print characters and scene-setting models.

“Which certainly eventually could happen, but we don’t see it in the near term,” Greene said. “So, while I’d never say never, I think the lack of the real ‘gotta have it’ application for consumer 3D printing limits the potential for the consumer side for now.”

Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm, said the consumer 3D printer market is hampered less by a reason to exist and more by a lack of affordable technology.

Mattel to the rescue
“I would argue that a consumer 3D printer does not yet exist,” Wohlers said. “This could change when Mattel introduces its new ThingMaker later this year.”

In February, Mattel announced it had reinvented its iconic ThingMaker at-home toy-making device, this time as a 3D printer that will cost $300.

Mattel unveiled its 3D printer at the New York Toy Fair, and it is already taking pre-orders for the machine, which will be available 15 October.

“For 15-plus years, I’ve believed that children could become a large market because they are creative, like to make objects, and entertain themselves,” Wohlers said. “New software tools for creating 3D content, coupled with products for children, such as the ThingMaker, could change the landscape some.”

Meanwhile, Wohlers said, most consumers will purchase 3D-printed parts and products online and at shops and stores — products designed by professionals on industrial-grade machines.

In addition to a lack of use cases, the consumer 3D printer has become a low-margin product, as Chinese equipment and filament manufacturers have combined with multiple distribution channels (including Amazon.com) to create a segment where it is really hard to achieve profit margins, Greene said.

“In turn, this has made companies like 3D Systems and Ultimaker re-think some of their product and areas of focus,” Greene said. “Furthermore, there is a growing number of online 3D printing services like Sculpteo [and] Shapeways… that make it so fast and easy for consumers to get their stuff 3D printed that it seems like consumers don’t need their own 3D printer.”

In May, Ultimaker and Ultimaker added the Ultimaker 2+, which sports a price tag more than twice the original $999 Ultimaker.

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