Perspective and Economics of 3D Printers

In 2012, Deloitte predicts that 3D printers will likely become a viable segment in several markets including the $22 billion global power tools market, and the industrial manufacturing market with growth rates of greater than 100 percent versus 2011. 3D printers are also expected to enjoy success in several niche areas such as the “do it yourself” home hobbyist market and various after-market support chains with long tail characteristics (such as small appliance and auto repair). There is also significant interest in the application of 3D printing in the biomedical sector. However, total combined printer sales will likely remain in the sub $200 million range, and those expecting a “replicator” for use at home will be disappointed.

Mass produced objects are still substantially cheaper to manufacture than their 3D-printed counterparts due to the costs of feedstock material. So although a consumer could print dinner plates at home, they would cost 30 times more than simply buying them at a store75. In the same way, while most people already have the capability to print novels and textbooks at home, they find it cheaper and more convenient to buy books through online or local bookstores.

3D printers are extremely useful for creating prototypes, highly customized items, or small production runs, but they do not scale well beyond 10 items.

At the low-end consumer level, the dominant process will likely remain single color thermoplastic extrusion. This method uses a print head to deposit small amounts of melted ABS (or other plastic) in a manner similar to an inkjet printer. There are several limitations with this method, most significantly the high cost of raw feedstock plastics, which will likely remain in the $35-$45/kg range.

The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of additive manufacturing was 29.4% in 2011, according to the new report. The CAGR for the industry’s 24-year history is 26.4%. The AM (Additive Manufacturing which includes 3D printers and other types of rapid manufacturing systems) industry is expected to continue strong double-digit growth over the next several years. By 2015, Wohlers Associates believes that the sale of AM products and services will reach $3.7 billion worldwide, and by 2019, surpass the $6.5 billion mark.

Wohlers Report 2012 covers all aspects of additive manufacturing, including its history, applications, processes, manufacturers, and materials. It documents pertinent developments in the past year, covers R&D and collaboration activities in government, academia, and industry, and summarizes the state of the industry in countries around the world. It also tracks the extraordinary growth of personal 3D printers—machines priced under $5,000, with the majority in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.

DARPA and Airbus and others are working on large scale systems to use additive manufacturing to revamp large scale manufacturing processes Things like printing out the parts of a tank or the wings of an airplane but not processes for making things in the home.

Limitations and Hurdles to Dominant 3D desktop printers

I think 3D printing will develop nice niches but will not kill manufacturing that kills China’s advantage or change so that we are mainly printing from the home.

There will be some 3d printing in the home but not as common as power tools.
There will be more and bigger TechShop and printing facilities at Staples, Kinkos, and helping reduce inventory at Walmart, Ikea and other large stores. There will still be a large dominance of manufacturing in China.

1. The high cost of feedstock
2. The variety of feedstock needed

Think about how many people own color printers versus going to Kinkos for color printing. People mostly do not choose to upgrade from black and white laser printers because of the increased cost of the printers and of the ink. 3D printers have even more expensive “ink”.

3. The inferior quality of product from 3D desktop printers versus more expensive machines

People do not have as many personal exercise equipment and weights now but go to gyms like 24 hour fitness for more and better equipment.

4. Scale still matters

For a while people had a lot of sewing machines, but now people do not bother and get clothes that are made in China and other countries.

China does not just have an advantage with low cost labor, there are other cost advantages. They are now the main manufacturer and have been for decades. They are further ahead on the learning curve, they have less expensive factory building construction (they can build buildings faster and cheaper), they can adopt the latest robotics, automation, additive printing equipment and other improvements.

You only have 120 volts and a certain level of power and supplies coming to your home.

5. Food printing

How big a niche would this be ? Having a 3d printer to make fancy chocolate decorations ?

Baking forms for cookies and cakes are a niche product category. Would it be a fad to make fancy baking ?

How about better Betty Crocker toy baking machines ?

6. Lack of robustness of the products for many 3D printers

Would the niche for 3D printers get bigger when the products are as robust and precise enough to print good quality lego pieces ?

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