I recently read an article expressing concern over the abundance of 3D printing hype. It seems an obvious thing to pigeonhole the industry as being next in a long line of phenomena proving the Gartner bubble graph prophetic. By this estimation, we should soon hit the trough, where everyone learns the technology isn't what people were saying, followed by disappointment and eventually a slower, more natural growth curve.
Difficult usability and a lack of modeling knowledge are listed as the primary harbingers of this doom and gloom. These are the acknowledged barriers to widespread consumer acceptance and several personal class players are trying to address these problems in one way or another. However, the need to improve the technology and grow the consumer base does not automatically qualify the market as a bubble.
The reality is that 3D printing is not experiencing an unnatural growth curve, but media coverage has exploded. Web sites previously about something are now about something and 3D printing. This is understandable, given how little good economic news we have had to write about during the last few years. It's almost as if the media is bubble starved.
As a result, 3D printing is being compared to previous disasters like real estate, dot com and oil. This perception lacks a recognition of personal 3D printing's long term practicality. It isn't going to be unrealistic science fiction, human organ production, MakerBots replacing Chinese labor and machine guns for all. It is going to be the final component in a digital delivery chain – a replacement for shipping.
A good analogy would be music and literature. Ten years from now, it should be common practice to download purchased hard goods and 3D print them. One doesn't have to know how to play an instrument or write a book in order to appreciate the ability to listen to an MP3 or read Game of Thrones on a tablet. Likewise, one does not need to know how to model a car part in order to purchase, download and print it. The truth is, the public's general lack of 3D modeling skill does not impact the personal 3D printing end game.
A side effect of personal 3D printing being adopted as a delivery medium would be a breach in the economies of scale currently monopolized by traditional mass production. If ten thousand customers want a plastic object and each of those customers have a 3D printer, there is no reason for the plastic object to be mass produced by the manufacturer. Instead, production would be handled one customer at a time in the distributed manufacturing network created by the customers' 3D printers. Shipping and stocking costs are removed from the equation. The product is delivered faster, because it is digital.
Before this bright future can be realized, ease-of-use needs to be addressed. Personal 3D printers must become less expensive and simpler to operate. Ideally, a personal 3D printer five or six years from now will cost less than $500, have an auto-leveling build platform and controlling software so basic anyone can use it. In other words, it will be as easy to install and operate as an inkjet 2D printer.
The industry knows the imaginary printer outlined above must exist in order for the personal class to expand beyond the makers, scale modelers and non-crucial prototyping. However, there are established market forces for which such a revolution would unbalance a high profit-per-unit business model. These same forces are currently the most capable entities in terms of R&D, but they have no reason to seek adjustment of the status quo. All this will change if a company like Hewlett Packard decides to enter the fray. They have the funds and experience to develop such a product and make it succeed on a high volume, low margin metric. Once that happens, the current players will either rapidly adapt to the new dynamic, having prepared in advance, or they will exit the personal market and seek shelter in professional class patents.
So, if you are looking for signs to distinguish between the false bubble we have now and the genuine boom that is coming, watch for rumors about major tech companies and 3D printing. The announcement alone would instantly jolt the company's stock five percent and wouldn't the bearish, bubble-hungry media have a field day with that one.
Author's note: A personal class printer with an auto-leveling platform isn't as pie-in-the-sky as one might think. Inventors are already experimenting with merging 3D printing and 3D scanning into one device. If the scanning component includes a laser to gauge distance from the scan target, the same laser could be used to record distance from the platform at all four corners. From there, it's just a matter of servos and controller electronics.