Growth crisis? The 3D printer and promises of digital fabrication for all are struggling to make their way into households despite a high-growth global market.
“One day, every company, every school, every house will have its 3D printer”, prophesized Bre Pettis, charismatic founder of Makerbot and pioneer of 3D printing for the general public. Except that the day in question is a (relatively) long time coming. The market for 3D printing is however showing incredible growth. Estimated at 4.3 billion dollars in 2015, it should leap up to 17.7 billion dollars by 2020, according to the British market analyst firm Context.
“The market of 3D printers is continuing its transformation by moving from a niche market to a global market reaching companies as well as end users”, points out a report from the American firm Gartner. It estimates world sales of 3D printers at 500,000 in 2016, double the figure of 2015, and at 5.9 million in 2019. A study from the IHS global information company foresees an astronomical acceleration, exceeding 35 billion dollars in 2020.
The market of 3D printing: boom or bubble?
Although sales of personal 3D printers are skyrocketing, difficult to know if they are being used for professional or recreational purposes. Few global studies comprehend this sector, still very fragmented but conducive to media agitation. One can wonder about the risk of a speculative bubble. Growth mainly concerns the professional sector and not retail yet, highlights a rather critical study published by Deloitte.
Breakdown of 3D printers worldwide:
Slowly but surely, the world leaders 3D Systems and Stratasys (that bought Makerbot for 400 million dollars in 2013) are distancing themselves from 3D printing for the general public. “The market for 3D printing and additive fabrication will continue its growth on the main applications that make up today the reality of use of these technologies”, claims Eric Bredin, director of Stratasys France, who is counting more on the development of conceptual models, functional prototypes and the production of tools to establish the industrial strategy of the group.
Facing them, a myriad of start-ups are being launched with enthusiasm on the 3D printing domestic market. However, the pioneers are bearing the brunt of an economical model still finding its way. The Fabshop, main distributor of Makerbot in France, went into receivership in September 2015. The historic store Reprap Pro closed down in London in January. The Makerbot firm itself had to lay off 20% of its workforce.
Following the craze, the frustration?
“The market is already saturated whereas demand is not keeping pace”, analyses Mathilde Berchon, project leader at the Techshop at Ivry-sur-Seine and author of a reference book on 3D printing. According to her, “3D printing does not meet a consumption need. The real question is to know how to model and what to do with these printers.”
Where one expected a drone effect, sales of personal 3D printers are taking a long time to get off the ground, despite the arrival of machines for less than €300. 3D printing is still far from being available to all. Before printing you need to go through the learning process of 3D modeling. And failures are frequent, especially with entry-level machines. Cost of filaments, monochrome printed objects, slow printing, toxic risks, legal constraints for reproduction…there are many factors acting as a brake for a satisfactory personal use. In order to properly print in 3D, you need to be willing to get your hands dirty. It’s the very principle of open source machines sold in kits by numerous manufacturers such as the Spanish BQ or the French manufacturer Dagoma.
In 2016, only 10% of domestic machines on the market should be plug & print. “The domestic use of 3D printers will only accelerate with the increased provision of contents that will favor the mass deployment of these printers”, says the director of Stratasys France.
Educate to print in 3D
Like Stratasys, that intends to invest in training programs in junior high schools, high schools and design schools, other manufacturers are coveting education and a younger public. The Mattel group launched Thingmaker mid-February, a $300 3D printer for toys. “It’s clever to put 3D printers into the hands of children, it is also the way for manufacturers to create the market, reckons Aude Vivès-Albertini, specialized lawyer in intellectual property and new technologies. In ten or twenty years, they will know perfectly well how to create files, parameter machines and get the piece they want.”
Pending the 3D printer in every kitchen, service offers are being developed. Third places and fablabs are offering the general public the supervision and the machines to become familiar with 3D technologies.
The IT giants are beginning to break their wait-and-see position on the market of personal 3D printing. “Microsoft is specializing on software initiatives, highlights Mathilde Berchon, without yet coming across a massive public.” Polaroid announced at the Las Vegas CES in January the launch of its 3D printer range for 2016 HP should also strike hard at the end of the year with its Multi Jet Fusion technology. Inspired from ink-jet machines, it promises to be affordable, ten times as fast and most importantly able to print in several colors.