The 3D printing revolution has already happened, but not in your home

Backchannel recently published a story of MakerBot’s rise and its fall from makers’ grace. It’s an interesting account of the challenges that MakerBot faced, the assumptions they made about the potential market size, and the string of difficult decisions made to broaden the appeal beyond hackers and hobbyists.

MakerBot took large investment, and to deliver a return on that it promised to place a desktop 3D printer in every home. Bre Pettis (MakerBot’s founder) talked publicly of a future where people no longer have to go to the stores because they can print almost anything they need on demand. The size of the market was likened to that of the market for 2D printers. There was a time when nearly every home had one of those, and it’s hard to imagine an office without several printers.

3D printers, however, are nothing like 2D printers. Paper printers can cost as little as £20. Almost any kind of document anyone can make on their computer is printable. Notes, receipts, recipes, memoirs, spreadsheets, plane tickets, and so on. Once you know how to create or open such a document using a web browser, Word, or any other program familiar to you, you can print it.

3D printers, on the other hand, cost much more, and what you can create with the lower-end ones is extremely limited. Often you can use only one material. The printing process can be slow and error prone. You need to know a lot before you can successfully produce useful objects:

It takes a long time to develop these skills, and it takes a long time to prototype objects from the first try to the refined, usable version. Lots of specialist knowledge is required. That knowledge is multidisciplinary and usually picked up through experience. It’s not just ambitious, but unrealistic to expect that in every household there is someone prepared to put in all that work in their spare time, just to avoid having to buy the finished object instead.

A better comparison is with the home sewing and knitting markets. Sewing and knitting machines require the same commitment to skill development. The initial cost for a machine varies, but some are priced similarly to desktop 3D printing machines. To produce things of a professional standard, a maker needs to invest time in learning and prototyping. They need to continuously spend money on tools and consumables.

Not every home has a sewing machine, and even those that do often don’t use it. Even so, the domestic sewing machine market is not insignificant, and forecast to reach 30.8 million units by 2020 (citation). The growth in the market is partially driven by the hobbyists, sharing their skills and bringing in new people. Similarly to the 3D printing hobbyists, the home sewists drive innovation in business models, information sharing, creating new kinds of organisations, and exploring and developing new materials and techniques. By comparison, in 2014 MakerBot sold 39,356 printers.

It’s a shame that MakerBot didn’t realise its goal, but despite not placing a printer in every home, the easy and relatively cheap access to 3D printing has already had a huge impact. There are companies and products that couldn’t have existed if it weren’t for access to 3D printers for prototyping.

A prosthetic arm which was manufactured using 3D printing

A prosthetic arm manufactured using 3D printing, currently on display at the Design Museum in London

In the Designer Maker User exhibition at the Design Museum in London you can see a prosthetic hand which can be created for each wearer individually to ensure a good fit. The access to 3D printing makes manufacturing one-off items like that affordable.

A prosthetic arm which was manufactured using 3D printing

Beasts of Balance is a game which challenges you to stack complex, three-dimensional shapes. It was prototyped using 3D printing

3D printing is exceptionally suitable for prototyping. You can quickly create complex shapes and produce them to see how they feel. Beast of Balance, the game where you stack physical pieces, was developed thanks to the access to 3D printing. You should read their post detailing exactly how they developed the game pieces. The ease with which they could try new ideas was important in the early development.

Tons of innovation is being driven by desktop 3D printing. MakerBot lowered the barrier to entry, and as a result lots of new people were able to try out ideas for new tools, medical equipment, and personalised production. Just because the people benefitting from it are small companies, students and hobbyists doesn’t diminish how transformative having access to inexpensive 3D printing is. It might not be enough for investors who want to see huge growth, but it’s pretty amazing to see small businesses and curious individuals being able to use the technology to develop their ideas.