It isn't uncommon among new technologies. After the initial excitement lulls, sales slow and enthusiasm wanes. Sometimes innovations in the product can regenerate interest in the marketplace; sometimes those innovations don't come or just don't make a difference. It happened to fiber optic cables (everyone uses Ethernet for network connectivity instead), the Laserdisc (the predecessor to DVDs, which didn't come along for another 20 years), and the QR code (developed in 1994, yet virtually unusable until the advent of social media just recently).
When 3D printing was first introduced, it was slated to entirely revolutionize manufacturing. No longer would design and production be centralized and reserved for the big companies; soon people would design and produce their own products at home or on the job site. Though the 3D printing industry saw gains during 2013-14, all of the gains were in a relatively small potential market: big business.
However, research completed by Gartner and Canalys points to a rapidly growing 3D printing industry in the very near future. Gartner expects the industry to double unit shipments in 2015, and again each of the next two years, culminating to a total of 2.3 million units by 2018, up from just 108,151 units sold during 2014. Canalys expects the market for printers, printing materials, and related services to expand from its current $2.5 billion to $16.2 billion by 2018.
One of the factors driving greater acceptance and adoption of 3D printing in the mass market is the introduction of a machine developed and marketed by 2D printing giant and legend, Hewlett-Packard. What is the industry lacking, and what can HP bring to the table?
What's Hindering the Excitement Over 3D Printing?
3D printers are expensive. These machines aren't easy or intuitive to operate. The process is extremely slow, taking anywhere from a few hours to a few days to produce a useful product (if, indeed, the product is actually useful post-production). Some people even question the safety of these machines, given that many of the common materials used are potentially explosive, the printers run at dangerously high temperatures, and operation can possibly adversely affect indoor air quality. In all, consumer adoption of 3D printing has been significantly slower than anticipated.
What Does 3D Printing Need to Bring Back the Market Enthusiasm?
Though a few 3D printers are available for less than $1,000, it's hard to get a feature-packed machine for reasonable money. Combining lower costs with higher-end features would definitely spark sales and regenerate excitement over the potential of 3D printers. Making the software more intuitive and user-friendly would also help. With the right software and features, computer aided design could be within the grasp of even casual users.
Another factor that could drive mass adoption is printer heads capable of working with more than a single group of materials. Currently, printer heads are limited to a single group, such as polymers. With printers capable of working with other materials, such as wood, metals, and glass, more people would be willing to invest in the technology.
Additionally, 3D printers need to get faster and more accurate. Few users are willing to wait days to produce an item that's inevitably inferior to its mass-produced counterpart. Expiring and soon-to-be expiring patents are also driving the market for 3D printing. The open source future of 3D printing means costs will go down as speed and printing quality rises.
What Can HP Bring to the Equation?
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, HP showcased its new Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer, a joint venture with Intel. Intel provided the Core i7 processor, to which HP added the printer, a culmination of more than three decades of research and development on 2D printers. The result is a surprisingly fast 3D printer, which is also stunningly more affordable.
The Multi Jet Fusion demonstrated ten times the speed of 3D printers currently on the market, at a price half that of the competitors. A company which has consistently shown its ability to generate revenue growth of 60 percent year-over-year shouldn't have any difficulty catapulting the acceptance and sales of a red-hot commodity like 3D printers.
What else can HP bring to the table? Its marketing skills have the potential to spread awareness and longing for 3D printers, since HP is already a household name. Competitors like Stratasys, 3D Systems, ExOne, and voxeljet are primarily known by CAD pros, not by the average consumer. However, as other mainstream companies such as General Electric (GE) and 3M enter the 3D printing landscape, product awareness and acceptance could finally become widespread.
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