Companies at risk still have time to prepare. There remain hurdles that must be overcome before 3D printing reaches a critical threshold of adoption. For now, it remains limited to small production volumes, for example. Its production costs are still high compared with those of conventional mass production owing to its slow production speed and the high cost of raw materials. The number of raw materials that can be used in 3D printing is growing but still relatively small, and the range of properties they can deliver (for example, heat resistance) is relatively limited. (An owner of a small, custom heating- and air-conditioning-equipment business is watching this closely, however, as he ultimately expects 3D printing to be an economical alternative to injection molding. “I’m totally following this trend. Once the technology can handle 1-by-1-meter artifacts with heat-resistant materials, I’ll pounce on it.”) And combining different types of material in a single product remains difficult.
There are other challenges as well. Certain product designs, especially objects with bridges or overhangs, can be difficult for 3D printers to execute. The quality of 3D printing’s output can be lacking or inconsistent—cooling can cause shrinkage that compromises the accuracy of product dimensions, for example, and surfaces can be rough. The current price of 3D printers, both commercial and consumer grade, also poses a hurdle for many buyers, and there is a learning curve when it comes to using the devices.
But these hurdles—like the minimum thickness of layers that can be produced, which has shrunk from 0.25 millimeter to 0.1 millimeter in the past five years—will continue to be overcome, and most should disappear within the next five years. This will pave the way for a surge in adoption and, potentially, mainstream status. (See Exhibit 1.)
Consider some of the trends already in place. Following a trajectory similar to that of digital cameras, photo-finishing equipment, and conventional laser and inkjet printers, prices of 3D printers, for both industrial and consumer use, continue to fall. Soon price will no longer pose a hurdle for first-time buyers. (See Exhibit 2.) Some industry watchers believe that prices for entry-level machines, in fact, could fall below the psychologically crucial $100 level within the next two or three years.
Technological hurdles are also gradually being surmounted. 3D printers are producing output of increasing strength, for example; indeed, manufacturers of jet engines are starting to use 3D printers to produce parts. The size of printable objects is also increasing, as is the range of usable materials. The world’s largest 3D printer, developed by China’s Dalian University of Technology, uses industrial-grade sand.
Simultaneously, the industry is broadening. Two competitors—Stratasys and 3D Systems—currently account for roughly three-fourths of the installed base of 3D printers. (Market leader Stratasys recently strengthened its position by acquiring MakerBot, a producer of 3D printer kits for the consumer and desktop market segments.) But many new competitors are emerging. Interest is particularly strong in the personal-printer segment, where global sales are growing quickly: 2013 sales are on track to reach roughly 42,000 units, compared with approximately 23,000 units in 2011. For consumers, this means both falling prices and a widening array of choices. There are already more than 100 models of personal 3D printers available from the more than 60 companies competing in this space. Offerings range from streamlined, build-it-yourself kits selling for several hundred dollars to high-end machines that sell for several thousand.
In concert, outside elements that will underpin the technology’s adoption are emerging or already exist. Software that marries 3D scanning, modeling, and printing capabilities, for example—allowing for the easy copying and reproduction of existing objects, whether by consent or illegally—is becoming increasingly affordable. This stands to have major implications for 3D printing’s speed of adoption, just as it raises concerns and questions about product piracy and intellectual-property rights. There are also enabling communities that have formed in a spirit similar to that of the open-source community. An example is Thingiverse, a site that allows users to share digital designs that can serve as the basis for 3D-printed products.
In sum, 3D printing has a tailwind at its back. How quickly this leads to mainstream adoption remains to be seen—our current guess of five years or less might ultimately prove conservative.
Based on growth rates of the largest manufacturers.