Back at the beginning of the decade, 3D printing, on the consumer level, was the hot new thing that was Going To Change Everything. By 2014, the promise of “makers” turning manufacturing into a democracy had driven stocks to soaring highs. But as of two years later, the 3D printing industry is struggling and more and more, it’s clear the consumer revolution isn’t going to materialize. So what happened? And what can the tech industry learn from it?
The Problems Of 3D Printing
The problem seems to be, in the end, two-fold: What you pay for it, and what you get in return. The first is that running a 3D printer, even a small one, is expensive. Even the cheapest models fit only for running off cheap plastic toys will still cost you at least $200 just for the base model. The filament you need for the printer is $20 a throw for the cheapest, flimsiest plastic, and substantially more if you want something that will be of genuine industrial use. It’s relatively easy to find and run off a toy car or a piece of doll furniture. Building, say, a part for your bike or kitchen tools is going to require substantially stronger plastic.
Also, at the low end, you’re talking about machines that break quite often. 3D printers are complex machines that need to move in three dimensional space. That means relatively heavy maintenance schedules and expensive parts that need replacing, which may be beyond the repair skills of your average home 3D printing enthusiast.
There are 3D printers that can print in other mediums, such as metal or wood. But those are heavy industrial machines that cost thousands of dollars, using powders and high-end materials science to craft the products in question. Attempts to work them into consumer printing, such as Makerbot’s new filament composites, have largely fallen flat.
Here’s the problem, though. Everybody knew about this. Anybody who used the technology could have told you that it was cool, but the novelty of running off custom sporks was going to wear off fast. The issues with materials were well known, as nobody in the industry pretended other materials weren’t years away. And, yet, the hype rocket took off anyway, in part because, to be fair, there were so many neat ideas you could realize. And in some ways, this makes 3D printing, as a consumer technology, a victim of a larger problem in tech.
Why The Tech Industry Keeps Making This Mistake
This isn’t to say 3D printing doesn’t have uses. In the medical field, in fashion, and elsewhere, it’s here to stay. The problem is that the tech industry doesn’t want to hear about how a new technology will improve rapid prototyping and allow industries to better refine their products. That’s not “sexy.” They want the next iPhone, the next Tesla, the next anything, and everything has to hit that height or go away.
This has led to an increasing problem exemplified by 3D printing as a consumer business: It’s a great solution. But what’s the problem? In a world where you can order almost anything off the internet and have it show up at your door, sometimes in hours, why should anybody sit around and wait hours for a machine to run it off?
If you know where to look, you can see this problem everywhere, where the consumer is seen as the logical end for any technology whether the consumer wants it or not. Google Glass was a smart idea for an industrial technology, but Google spent years and millions trying to put it on our faces, only to wind up the butt of jokes. The Fitbit convinced industrial giants that people wanted a talking watch on their wrist, but not even Apple has been able to make them more than a niche product. Microsoft, Apple and Google are all forging ahead with voice-command-powered personal assistants, but nobody seems to use them or particularly care about them.
Nor is this a new story. Back in the ’90s, virtual reality was going to take over the consumer market, only for expensive headsets, a lack of software, and general consumer disinterest to relegate it to industrial technology. And the current VR craze features expensive headsets, little software, and a distinct lack of interest from consumers. And yet, it’s the new 3D printing.
Not Everything Can Sell Like The iPhone
This isn’t to knock any of these ideas. They all have their uses, albeit rarely what their boosters envisioned. And they’ve all got the capacity to make the world better: As an industrial technology, 3D printing has replaced limbs, built better cars, and has a bright future helping engineers realize greener, smarter products. But it just was never going to be a consumer technology.
The tech industry is relentlessly optimistic, and that has its virtues. In light of everything from NSA surveillance to cyberbullying, the industry needs to focus on the positive just to stay in business. But it can also blind otherwise brilliant people to some simple realities. Before the would-be Next Big Thing comes along, the tech industry should ask itself just how big it could really be, and just who really wants it.