3D Printing is here – but the factory in every home isn’t here yet!
In 2012, Deloitte predicts that 3D printers will likely become a viable segment in several markets including the $22 billion global power tools market70, 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 sector71. 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.
Although 3D printers hold considerable promise, one must be wary of the hype surrounding the technology. Some have heralded 3D printers as the first step toward the “democratization” of production72, calling them “desktop factories”73; others have speculated that consumers will soon be able to download open source designs for anything they can imagine and then use 3D printers to instantly fulfill their needs and desires74. However, the current technology is subject to several significant limitations. While some of these will be overcome in the medium term, others are the result of fundamental constraints that are unlikely to be resolved.
Today, 3D-printed objects are rarely as durable as their traditionally manufactured counterparts. While some exceptions do exist, using a 3D printer tends to be extremely expensive and is only practical when conventional production techniques are not feasible. For example, a printed wrench, while functional, will simply not last as long as one produced through drop forging, which can potentially survive generations of hard use.
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. Due to economies of scale, traditional manufacturing techniques are likely to always be much faster and far more efficient when mass production is required. In this way, 3D printing is a lot like paper printing. Making fifty copies on a printer or photocopier is economical and reasonable, but making a thousand copies shifts the advantage to an offset press.
While there have been recent experiments in embedding electrically conductive traces into printed objects76, 3D printers are not capable of producing complex electronic components such as processors, memory or other integrated components. So while someone could easily print a new case for their smartphone, no one will be printing a complete smartphone at home.
3D printing is generally limited to producing relatively homogeneous objects made up of a small number of distinct materials (and for most entry-level units, just a single material). This means that printing items requiring multiple materials, such as a running shoe77, is not possible without substantial increases in complexity. Nor can 3D printers capitalize on the material equivalent of “primary colors” that traditional paper printers use to generate a rainbow of hues from a limited set of different inks.
Lastly, many items derive their utility from the physical properties of the materials they are made from – for example, Pyrex cookware, or NiChrome heating elements. 3D printers are not capable of “synthesizing” these materials and are entirely dependent on the feedstock material provided. To produce even a subset of consumer goods used in the average household would require dozens to hundreds of different feedstock materials, many of which are not suited to the processes used in 3D printing.
Despite these limitations, there are significant markets where 3D printers will likely enjoy success in 2012. Entry-level prices are expected to drop below $1,00078 in 2012, placing them well within the range of hobbyists and determined consumers. While it is not expected that 3D printers will become mainstream in the next 12 months, early adopters will likely demonstrate that a viable market does exist, and one can expect to see growing interest from larger appliance, tool and industrial machinery producers.
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 range79. For 2012 the niche for these consumer units will typically be limited to artists, crafters, hobbyists and those within the growing “maker” community80. An equivalent comparison in the home market would be table saws versus toaster ovens: the former is limited to large numbers of enthusiasts, but the latter is in virtually every home.
While the consumer market will likely grow in 2012, most revenue will likely come from commercial users. Continued price pressure on commercial 3D printers with some products approaching the $10K price point can be expected81. The diverse set of processes used within commercial 3D printers will help ensure a broad range of price points with technologies including multicolor thermoplastic extrusion82 (similar to the process described above), photo-catalyzed resins83 (using light to harden liquid plastics), deposited binders84 (applying resin binders to powders) and laser sintering85 (using lasers to melt powder together).
The range of materials supported by 3D printing is expected to broaden, with some advanced processes allowing objects to be printed with extremely accurate dimensions, including those with moving parts86. Businesses requiring rapid prototyping and highly customized or small production runs will likely continue to be the primary customers for commercial 3D printers in the near term, but new niches may begin to develop as prices and sizes begin to come down. One area where early adoption is likely in 2012 is in after-market service industries that need to manage a long tail of large inventories made up of unique items with low individual demand, such as small appliance and automotive repair87, 88. Rather than having to stock rarely used replacement parts, or make customers wait for ordered parts, the required parts could be printed on demand. In this scenario, it is not unreasonable to envision a 3D printer in a technician’s vehicle or garage allowing him to print parts as needed.
While 3D printers will likely remain a niche product in 2012, with purchases primarily made by early adopters, several developments that might demonstrate the technology are becoming mature and have begun to “cross the chasm”. While the technology has several unique applications and is expected to experience considerable growth in the long run, for the foreseeable future it will likely remain a specialized application that for the most part will complement, not replace, traditional forms of production.
Deloitte Canada, as referenced in videos, podcasts, or online materials related to TMT Predictions 2012, refers to Deloitte & Touche LLP, the Canadian member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.
703D printers are more akin to tools like table saws and drill presses, rather than consumer electronics. The $22 billion power tool market gives an idea of the size of the total addressable market. Forecast Source: World Power Tools to 2015, Freedonia Group, June 2011: http://www.freedoniagroup.com/World-Power-Tools.html
71There is considerable research on using 3D printers for biomedical applications. Some examples include:
- Printing custom disposable drill guides used in knee replacement surgery;>/li>
- Printing custom prosthetics (such as titanium knee joint components);
- Printing cartilage scaffolding for use in growing replacement hearts;
- Full scale printing of artificial organs.
Source: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine Website: http://www.wakehealth.edu/WFIRM/
72Shapeways is the company which coined the phrase “Democratization of Production” comparing 3D printing to similar revolutions in user-generated content. Source: Shapeways & the democratization of production, Slide Share, 15 October 2008: http://www.slideshare.net/jochem/shapeways-thedemocratization-of-production-presentation
73“Desktop Factory” bankruptcy. Source: THE ‘END OF THE ROAD’ OR A NEW BEGINNING, Desktop Factory news, August 2009: http://www.desktopfactory.com/news/08_12_09.html
743D printing: a replicator and teleporter in every home.Source: Extremetech, August 5, 2011: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/92042-3d-printing-areplicator-and-teleporter-in-every-home
75A standard popular kitchen plate weighs 450g and sells for $0.79. A 1kg spool of ABS filament runs ~$43 per kg so the 3D printed plate is almost 30 times more expensive (not including depreciation on the printer). Using the IKEA examples:
- The Lugn plate (stoneware) weighs 1lb and costs $0.79, while natural ABS filament for a 3D printer runs ~$43 per kg (3D printing is 27 times more expensive) – Source: IKEA Products, IKEA Website: http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/00133123/
- The Kalas plate (plastic) weighs 300g (for 6) and costs $1.99 (for 6), while colored ABS filament runs ~$48 per kg ( 3D printing is more than 7 times more expensive) – Source: IKEA Product Information, IKEA Website: http://www.ikea.com/ca/en/catalog/products/90096908/
76The University of Western Michigan is currently a global leader in making printed electronic components: http://www.wmich.edu/engineer/cape/pdf/CAPE%20brochure.pdf
77The number of different materials that go into something as ordinary as a shoe is impressive, from fabrics and leathers, to various rubbers, foams, plastics, metals and adhesives. This makes it a challenge to “print” even mundane household items. Source: Anatomy of a running shoe, ASICS Website: http://www.asics.co.uk/running/knowledge/anatomy-of-a-running-shoe/
78MakerBot introduces 3D printer kit for the home market at just over $1000. We expect 2012 to see the first sub $1,000 hobbyist units. MakerBot Thing-OMatickit w/Stepstruder MK7 $1099, MakerBot Store Website: http://store.makerbot.com/thing-o-matic-kit-mk7.html
79Typical consumer ABS feedstock prices at $48. Source: Yellow ABS 1kg Spool 1.75mm Filament, MakerBot Store Website: http://store.makerbot.com/yellow-abs-1kg-spool-1-75mm-filament.html
80Maker Magazine Website is devoted to the maker community – literally, a group of people who like making things: http://makezine.com/
81Z-corp is selling entry level printers at $14,900 for monochrome units. We expect 2012 to see the first sub $10,000 commercial units. Source: ZPrinter 150 & 250, ANVIL Protype & Design Website: http://www.anvilprototype.com/PrototypingTools/3DPrinters/ZPrinter150250/tabid/98/Default.aspx
82These are typical commercial multi-color thermoplastic extrusion 3D printers. Similar approaches can be used in the production of ceramic items. Dimension Website: http://www.dimensionprinting.com/default.aspx
83Typical commercial photo catalyzed resin 3D printer. Object Website: http://www.objet.com/
84Typical commercial deposited binder 3D printer. 3D Systems Website: http://www.zcorp.com/en/home.aspx
85Typical commercial laser sintered 3D printer, both plastic and metal models exist. 3DSystems Website: http://production3dprinters.com/sls/selective-lasersintering
86Objects with moving parts can now be printed in single passes (rather than separate parts that need to be assembled), due to extremely high spatial accuracy. Source: ZCorp’s 3D Printer replicates a wrench, YouTube, 11 July 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ-aWFYT_SU
87In contrast to the plate example from above, printing a small dishwasher-safe cutlery basket of about 500g would cost about $22 (not including the depreciated cost of the printer, and the cost of a template, if any) while ordering a custom part from the manufacturer costs $48. Further, the time required for shipping would be days, whereas the part could be printed in tens of minutes.
88Jay Leno has been 3D printing rare auto parts for two years now. In some cases he prints resin versions that can be given to machinists to produce accurate metal copies, but in other cases the resin components are being used. Source: Jay Leno’s 3D Printer Replaces Rusty Old Parts, Popular Mechanics, 8 June 2009: http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/jay-leno/technology/4320759