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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Thursday 31 March 2011

A Perfect Storm is Required for 3D Printing to go Mainstream - The Wind is Picking Up

Ok, so we have been here before, many times. Talking about what needs to happen for 3D Printing to "go viral" to use the term that is currently on trend. 

And before you question this post going over old ground, I'll tell you why I am cogitating on this. It seems the debate has subtly moved on from the "will it/won't it happen" discourse, where two clearly and strongly argued points of view were professed. Essentially, the "Aye's" seem to have it, because the general assumption now is that it will happen, but the debate centres around how and when. It is the 'how' question that throws up many different angles, which all need to come together at the same time to create the 'perfect storm' referenced in the title of this post.

Also, it should be noted, there are still a number of full-on dissenters out there, but their voices are receding and they are in a minority. 

So on to how and when. 

How will 3D printing penetrate everyday life? Many of the machine vendors and their allies are still pushing for '3D Printers in every home'. Obviously they have an ulterior motive here, because if/when demand like this does materialise, volumes of sales and their bottom lines will shoot through the roof. Realistically, IMHO, I think that 3D printers in many homes is entirely feasible (it will never be every home) — but this is no where near imminent. I think that I have said it here before, it probably will not happen in my lifetime. 

Before it can happen though, people have to want it, they have to understand it, and, more importantly, they have to want to understand it because they believe that they "need" it. Beyond the 3D printing itself, we really do have to take a step back — in the process that is. How many people, in general, can design in 3D? Proportionally, very few indeed. Based on the fact that 3D designs are the prerequisite for any 3D printer; education and ‘desire’ has to start here. Until there is a profusion of 3D designs, for which the designers (for designers read anyone) require an output, things will not move forward any quicker than they are now. As an analogy think about computers and 2D printers. 30-40 years ago computers were emerging as workplace tools for a few companies, the numbers increasing exponentially with time. Moreover, 2D printers did not become "must have's" until computers did. As the number of people that were familiar with computers and different software programmes in their workplace grew, this was mirrored by the uptake of computers — and printers — for personal use. I don’t know the precise figures, but I imagine the recreational use of computers is at least as great as their commercial use today. I believe a similar path will be traversed with 3D printing. But until lots of people can — and want to — design and create in 3D there will be absolutely no requirement for 3D printers in large volumes.

But that still leaves us with the philosophy of the killer app [Post of 18/1/10] — the first application of 3D printing that provides the reason to want to have it locally. New applications seem to push out a little further into mainstream consciousness each time, but nothing has emerged to date that has blown it out of the water. 

There is a growing argument, one that I back 100%, that the best way to get 3D printing into the mainstream is to start with schools. Get 3D design software and 3D printers into every school and college. The kids will eagerly learn to understand it, they will subsequently want it and one of them will probably come up with the killer app to finally bring on the perfect storm.


There is also another school of thought, the other side of the 'how' debate, which advocates the internet as the medium by which 3D printed objects will become mainstream — my old boss is on this side of the argument, and I am sure he won't mind me quoting him! You can have it in his own words, rather than me paraphrasing.

Duncan Wood, Rapid News Communications: 

"I think that the idea of a printer in every home is never going to happen ....... What I think will happen is that every home will have access to 3DP/AM via the online space, just as soon as every home gets the internet, then we'll see an explosion in 3D printing use. Choosing unique customised parts, gifts and designs will be the way people access it, choosing from the range of technologies available, not just the cheapest one they can afford to purchase out of their own pocket." 

Now, I don't dispute this as a growing and potentially huge application for 3D Printing, particularly if you take this a step further and consider the additional possibilities offered by replacement products and parts (eg dishwasher parts, kettles, toasters and so on). But, IMO, this will be an interim measure, a solution that will grow in it’s own right as a precursor to the perfect storm when 3D printers will become a common commodity.


  1. I'm not at all sure I would buy that analysis of the market of 2D printers. What has been left out is the symbiosis of computers, printers and digital photography. I think it was rise of affordable digital cameras that pushed the market for affordable quality colour printers. Unfortunately I cannot see a class of 3D objects that is as as ubiquitous and, I have to say, ephemeral as family photographs. I doubt very much whether many people would buy a 3D printer to produce lampshades or any other home improvement 'accessories', but they might buy a machine that printed, for instance, clothes.
    I would say the 3D printers will not become domestic machines until they can produce products which individual consumers buy in significant quantities.

  2. Bill, I fully accept that the "analysis" of the 2D printer market may be off, but your point about digital photography supports the analogy I was drawing on. For 3D printing it is the digital photography (killer app) that is still missing.

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