3D Printing: Breaking Into the Consumer Market — Who Will Be First?

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m4A woman is busy making dinner for her family. She turns on the oven, but the knob to control the temperature breaks in her hand. Rather than panic, she heads to her computer and looks up the manufacturer website for the brand of oven she has. She locates the part number of the knob that broke, and downloads the STL file to her 3D printer, which is conveniently located on her kitchen counter. While the new knob is being printed, she prepares a salad and sets the table for her family. Before everyone is seated at the table, the new knob is printed and dinner is saved.

Is this a scene from the distant future? Not really. The technology needed to make this happen all exists today, and all the 3D manufacturers are hoping to make this a reality sooner rather than later.

So what is preventing this from happening sooner? Right now, I would argue that consumers aren’t quite ready to jump into the 3D world. The cost of 3D printers may be a factor, but with new models coming out almost daily, and with prices dropping on the low-end models, I don’t think it will be long until we see a $199 FDM type printer focused on the home user. Price won’t be the only factor, however. There needs to be some other compelling reason to make the consumer embrace the technology. A couple of new 3D manufacturers may have come up with a reason, and it has nothing to do with technical achievement or scientific breakthroughs.

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Just a few months ago, M3D, one of the many 3D companies that began with a Kickstarter campaign, started shipping one of the first truly consumer focused 3D printers, called the Micro by M3D. Priced at only $349, this could be one of the first printers to gain some traction in the home market. I watched a demonstration of their technology at the 3D Print Show in NY City in April. This FDM type printer weighs just over 2 pounds. The filament spool is “hidden” under the self-leveling build platform. It is not fully enclosed (possible future enhancement?), but has a neat and clean “appliance” look to it. It would look right at home next to a toaster oven or microwave.

This new printer has a very small footprint (about 8” cube) and is available in 5 different colors. The availability of different colors reminds me of the early MAC computers. Apple made working on computers “fun” and being able to choose m2the color of your MAC made it cool. They also made sure the cables, keyboard, mouse, and all the other pieces matched the style of the machine. Consumers wanted to have one of these on their kitchen counter or in their home office. I believe the Micro accomplishes the same thing with their consumer focused printer.

Sprintray, another new 3D company, also has what I consider to be a cool looking printer. Their desktop DLP printer, called the MoonRay, has a small footprint and comes fully assembled. Like the M3D printer, the MoonRay was launched through Kickstarter, and shipments should start this summer. This sleek printer was also demonstrated at the 3D Print Show in NYC and drew quite a crowd.

If you think about 3D printers, especially the first few generations of them, they certainly were not works of art. They had belts and cables and metal rods, and were made out of plywood, or harsh metal frames. I can’t imagine anyone wanting them next to their espresso machine. Granted, some of the newer models are getting better and better looking, but most still have that “industrial” look to them.m3

I don’t own an Apple watch. If I did, I would not use it to tell the time (I have a smart phone that tells time). Nor would I use it to surf the web or get e-mail – the screen is just too small. So why are people waiting in line for these watches? Again, it is the “cool” factor. They do look great and everybody wants to talk to you about them if they see one on your wrist. I doubt 3D printers will never have this much of a “cool” factor, but they will start a conversation if someone sees one in your house. They will also be impressed if you print something for them, like a smartphone case, while they drink their espresso.

That is what will get people hooked on the technology and will help drive sales.

What do you think?

About The Author: Chris Carroll — TDF Industries LLC – a 3D Consulting Company

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