3D Printing Evolution: More in Common with the Internet or the Electric Car?

3D Printing Evolution? (art by Doug Mancosky of printingDDD.com)

3D Printing Evolution? (art by Doug Mancosky of printingDDD.com)

We’ve all read about amazing applications of 3D printing from food to firearms.  It’s been featured on crime TV shows and 3D printed gun fears were covered by the media.  Even Martha Stewart covered 3D printing!  We’ve read theories about new markets from consumer to small business to large corporations, the revolution is here!  I also remember, however, that I saw my first 3D printer 20 years ago and assumed the revolution was just around the corner then too.

Maybe it’s just me, but 3D printing doesn’t quite seem to be the darling of the media it once was a year ago.  It also seemed like last year every trade journal  had a couple articles about how 3D printing was going to revolutionize their industry, but it appears all these conversation have grown a bit quieter in the last 6 months.  So that raises the question, is mainstream 3D printing a passing fad or here to stay?

Now to immediately get one thing straight, I’m not saying 3D printing will ever completely go away, there are some necessary and amazing niche applications out there.  What I’m referring to here is more about mass market penetration and industrial evolution/revolution where it is everywhere.  Is 3D printing going to be like the internet in the 90’s where people found a way to use it for everything from dating to dining or more like the electric car which perpetually seems to be “just around the corner” from mass adoption?  I can throw stones at electric cars because I’m actually the proud owner of one and love it, but realize they’re not for everyone.  People have talked about the rise of the electric car for 30 years, but it never seems to get over the mass market hump most likely due to things like cost, inconvenience and its quirks.  The technology continues to improve and wow us (see Tesla), but electric cars still remain the domain of a niche population.  On the other side is the internet, which is used for everything everywhere, enough said.

We’re not the first to talk about this though, there’s some great reads about “curbing 3D printer enthusiasm” from the mainstream media to 3D design companies like Autodesk being slightly negative to the business press predicting it’s a growing bubble perhaps soon to burst.  It appears at least the business press’s predictions are being proven right as high flying 3D printer stocks have taken a tumble.  Most 3D printing stocks have cratered with 3D systems (DDD) dropping from near $100/share to under $15 in the last 2 years and similar % drops for Voxeljet (VJET), ExOne (XONE) and Stratasys (SSYS).

 3D Systems (DDD) Stock Price

All hope is not lost.  Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm that publishes and annual report on additive manufacturing, expects the market for 3D printers to jump from $2 billion today to $6 billion in 2017 to $10.8 billion in 2021 according to recent articles.  According to Gartner, the technology research company, printer sales have also been growing, doubling in fact.  Doubling a small number is still a small number, but eventually it’s very significant (see your last bacterial infection).  The stats show 108,151 3D printers sold worldwide in 2014 and 217,350 predicted for this year.  They also predict 2.3 million printers sold in 2018, still puny compared to a worldwide population of 7 billion, but enough to do some pretty cool things.  To follow on our question above remember there have been 700,000,000 iPhones sold worldwide since inception and versus only 170,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars (#1 seller).

I’m a big fan of Gartner Hype Cycle and think they’ve pegged it about perfect here.  Essentially the Hype Cycle says that every emerging technology goes through a predictable cycle of an “Innovation Trigger”, “Peak of Inflated Expectations”, “Trough of Disillusionment”, “Slope on Enlightenment” and finally a “Plateau of Productivity”.  They argue in a recent release that “enterprise 3D printing” has moved into the more mature “Slope of Enlightenment”, but “consumer 3D printing” is still stuck in “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and headed for the “Trough of Disillusionment”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2015

Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2015 (http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3114217)

We see many mature enterprise applications from jet parts to custom medical applications, but the consumer market still remains elusive.  My theory is that all the 3D gun printing debate/fears sensationalized a consumer market still very much in its infancy.  So I guess we have 3D printing being like the internet for industry (more mainstream), but it’s more electric car for the consumer (niche and early adopters).  There is a spectrum of voices out there, some saying 3D printing is dead to those saying we’re actually underestimating the impact of 3D printing and those that split the middle and try to offer a realistic assessment of what the technology can and can’t do.  I think they all can be right, I suppose it’s really all a matter of details such as sector, size, scope, time frame and definitions.  Either way, it’s a good conversation to have, but let’s hope long term that 3D printing has more in common with the internet than the electric car.

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