The sci-fi nature of 3D printing is the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when considering a technique that enables replication of objects. The second thing that comes to mind, particularly for people in the 3D industry or telecommunications, is its vast potential.
Canalys has released research today that predicts that the market will reach $3.8 billion this year and expand by almost a factor of four to reach $16.2 billion by 2018. That is a compound annual growth rate of 45.7 percent for the term of the study, which started last year. Part of a quote in the release by Senior Analyst Tim Shepherd summed up the reason that the category, which has existed for three decades, is set to grow:
”…3D printing has become an established technology for producing prototypes and concept models of all manner of products. But as it matures, there is clear and substantial potential across numerous sectors, such as engineering and architecture, aerospace and defense, and medical (particularly in the fabrication of custom prosthetics), for 3D printing to have a dramatic impact within five years.”
The verdict that 3D printing will have great potential is generally shared. For instance, today PC Pro posted a story that looks at whether or not five technologies, including 3D printing, the Internet of Things, augmented reality, quantum computing and wearable computing, will be disruptive.
On one hand, writer Davey Winder’s finding that 3D printing technology will indeed be disruptive is watered down by the fact the he identified all five as being disruptive—though wearables are only minimally so, and augmented reality only potentially. In any case, 3D printing was first on the list and his final comment, “Within another ten years the chances are pretty high that 3D printing will have changed everything,” suggests that he feels particularly strongly about this technology.
Growth along the lines of Canalys’ prediction will happen only if a strong consumer electronics element adds to the expansion. This week, according to Digital Trends, the Inside 3D Printing conference is being held in New York City, which explains the spate of news about the category.
Brian Heater looks at the elements that must be in place for a robust consumer 3D market to emerge: general knowledge about and opinion of 3D printing (for instance, will 3D printings’ use to copy guns or to create prosthetic skulls dominate the news?), usability, price and functionality. His conclusion:
So, yeah, we’re still a ways off on all of the above counts. But we’re getting there, and pretty quickly, to boot. For evidence, take a look at the Cupcake CNC. That was MakerBot’s first product, released in 2009 as a kit the user needed to assemble his or herself. The company — and the rest of the industry — has made a tremendous amount of progress in the intervening half-decade, no doubt pushed by increasing competition. Any truly mainstream 3D printer will have to address all of the above concerns. Given the amount of progress the industry has made thus far, such a product may not be another five years off.
Heater has a great point. No matter how cool and useful a technology is, the key is making it accessible. Indeed, the four topics he broached can all be seen in the context of usefulness as well as mental, technical and financial accessibility. If the past couple of years are any indication, the challenge will be met and 3D printing will become a common household technology. Then the fun really will start.