3D printers: Not for the average consumer

While 3D printing is quickly gaining favor in the enterprise, consumers may not see the technology live up to expectations

Consumers getting excited about the idea of at-home 3D printers may not want to get their hopes up anytime soon, Gartner research director Pete Basiliere says.

Basiliere, the author of a recent Gartner report predicting enterprise-class 3D printers to drop below the $2,000 price mark by 2016, says consumers may be disillusioned about the potential for in-home 3D printing technology. Recent coverage of extravagant and sometimes controversial 3D printing projects has many thinking the devices will soon be as common in homes as traditional 2D paper printers were 10 years ago, Basiliere says.

"When you have President Obama mentioning it in the State of the Union address, when you have coverage of people who are trying to use 3D printing to generate components of weapons, like high-capacity magazines for automatic weapons, that is in the general press," he says. "And so the hype continues there in the consumer space."

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From here, though, consumer 3D printing is likely to enter the "trough of disappointment" in the hype cycle, "because what the consumers are hearing about 3D printing is not the reality for them," Basiliere says.

One reason 3D printing will struggle to gain traction in consumer markets is the education needed to use the devices. Users will need to be proficient in CAD or 3D design software if they are to design an item for a 3D printer. And even once a user has learned how to use the software, the intricacies of 3D printing will be difficult to master for beginners, Basiliere says.

"Once you have that, now you still have to print it out, and depending upon the consumer's skill set, it could be a very difficult process of trial-and-error getting the printer to produce the part that they envisioned," he says. "Not that the printer is incapable, but there may be need for support structures and other elements in the design that, if the consumer isn't proficient with the software, it leads to a bad print."

The large price tag on 3D printers won't help matters in the consumer space, either. While the cost of enterprise-class 3D printers is quickly coming down, the same isn't likely to happen for consumers anytime soon, Basiliere says.

"You can go into Staples and buy a [2D] printer for about $100. Right now, the only way you're going to get a [3D] printer for a few hundred dollars is if you get a kit and build it yourself," he says. "And that's not the consumer model that I think everybody is thinking about."

However, the recent buzz around 3D printing technology will still have a real-world impact of some sort, Basiliere says. The technology is "at the peak of inflated expectations for the consumer market" right now, and will likely enter the consciousness of those who could benefit from the technology in the enterprise. While the consumer discussion around the technology will pass, it could have a lasting impact on the enterprise market.

"The fact is that there is so much hype around this from a consumer perspective, it has made enterprise managers aware that, 'oh wait a minute, maybe this is along much further along than I realized and maybe it really does have an application within my business,'" Basiliere says. "So, if anything, the hype around the consumer side is a benefit in making people aware that it's a viable technology for business."

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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