When it was first introduced to the public, 3D printing was expected to revolutionize human existence. The technology would usher in an era of on-demand manufacturing, where customers would make custom products at home with self-replicating machines. It would enable creation of revolutionary new materials. Medical professionals would be able to 3D print arms, legs and, in some cases, even body organs.
In anticipation of the revolution, stock prices for 3D printing companies spiked. The 3D printing pioneers Stratasys Ltd. (SSYS) and 3D Systems Corp. (DDD) touched highs of $120.36 and $80.13 in 2014 and 2013 respectively. The latter embarked on an acquisition spree that bound together a diverse set of companies, such as metal 3D printing companies and startups which 3D-printed cakes and confectionery. Its competitor, Stratasys, acquired the biggest prize with Makerbot—a well-known consumer 3D printing brand—for a hefty price tag. Spurred on by their success, a clutch of companies, such as The ExOne Co. (XONE) and Voxeljet (VJET), made their debut on the stock market.
Less than five years after it reached a crescendo, the 3D printing boom has turned into a bust. Stock prices for 3D printing companies have crashed. Stratasys took a $100 million goodwill write-down earlier this year related to its Makerbot acquisition. The company also laid off workers and closed retail operations in major cities. In its latest earnings statement, 3D systems released results below analyst expectations and failed to provide guidance for the next quarter. Even the supposed manufacturing revolution was restricted to the aircraft and automotive industries.
So, what went wrong with the 3D printing revolution? There were several things wrong with the 3D printing hype; however, this article lists three reasons why the 3D printing revolution went from boom to bust. (For related reading, see: The State of 3D Printing in 2015.)
An Expensive and Unusable Consumer Proposition
The general media discourse surrounding 3D printers stated that they were cheap and accessible. Both these attributes are necessary for products to become a hit with mainstream consumers. As supply and demand increase, prices crash. Except, in the case of 3D printers, they were neither cheap nor accessible.
Even as mainstream outlets such as Office Depot and Staples rushed to stock 3D printers and United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) announced an on-demand service at multiple outlets around the country, demand for 3D printers never caught up. Makerbot did not fully disclose sales numbers but, based on available data and Stratasys' write-down post-acquisition, one can guess that they must have been paltry.
Perhaps the most important reason for lack of demand were the expenses associated with 3D printers. At average prices upwards of $1,000, 3D printers were a substantial investment. Printing material costs further inflated prices. Then, there were the problems with interface and usability.
With long print times and an assortment of contraptions to configure before the actual printing process, 3D printers were difficult to use for average consumers. There was also a steep learning curve involved in using 3D printing. The complexity was further reinforced by a deluge of unbranded 3D printers in the market. Each 3D printer claimed to use a different material and perform a specific task, but the variety only ended up confusing customers. (For more, see: Stratasys Earnings: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)
Lack of a Single Defining Application
Historically, personal computers became ubiquitous through their productivity applications. Investment in personal computers became a tangible benefit due to the presence of productivity applications, such as VisiCalc and Word. 2D paper-based printers enabled similar efficiencies. Such applications are conspicuously absent in 3D printers. Their use has remained confined to a niche audience of hobbyists enthralled by the future possibilities of the technology.
Within the mainstream market, 3D printers are mainly used to prototype models for designers and body parts for medical students. The materials commonly used for 3D printing—PLA and ABS, both plastics—and imperfections of the technology make it difficult for average consumers to print useful or complex objects.
Quality and Material Issues in Manufacturing
3D printing holds much promise in manufacturing. For starters, it can enable crafting of custom products in an easy and cost-effective manner. Secondly, it can shorten supply chain cycles by collapsing multiple product manufacturing processes into a fewer number of steps. But, 3D printing's limited consumer use is mirrored in the manufacturing sector. According to a report by consulting firm PriceWaterhouse Cooper, only 0.9% of surveyed companies used 3D printing for production of final products or components.
A majority of organizations surveyed for the report said they were either not planning to use the technology or were still researching it. Part of the skepticism around 3D printing in the manufacturing sector related to the final quality of the finished product. Roughly half of the surveyed manufacturers stated that the final quality of products made with 3D printers was uncertain. Almost half of the respondents also pointed to expensive prices and the technology's limitations in terms of materials for their lack of enthusiasm for the technology. Taken together, these reasons are a succinct (and quantitative) summary of problems with 3D printing.
According to the report, the sweet spot for 3D printing lies in low-volume and highly-specialized products. However, mass manufacturing depends on high volumes to enable cheap prices. Thus, this translates to less demand for 3D printers with manufacturers focused on consumer markets. (For more, see: The Future of 3D Printing in Biopharmaceuticals.)
The Bottom Line
Perhaps the media jumped the gun while anointing a 3D printing revolution. There is no doubt that the technology is useful and revolutionary, but it is also ahead of its time. The revolution, if it is to occur, will not be sudden.
Instead, much work needs to be done to make it useful to the masses. For example, 3D printers need a less geeky and more consumer-friendly interface. The technology needs to improve by leaps and bounds to remove uncertain quality issues and enable diverse use of materials. Simultaneously, an associated infrastructure for support and marketing should also be developed around the technology.