I'm sorry to say that I find the talk of 3D printers on every kitchen table overly optimistic. Don't get me wrong; 3D printers are wonderful devices, but the question is whether they will ultimately gain hold in the consumer market. With so much press attention coupled with the factors that need to be examined, can anything be done to ensure that 3D printers are not a passing fad?
ORDbot Quantum FDM printer.
3D printing technology needs to rise above the hype and become useful to a broad set of end users. In essence, it needs to be more than just a novelty item. I believe we will see 3D printing take hold in manufacturing, but, as a common device in the home, I am not as sure. For it to take hold, there are some major areas 3D printing at home needs to address. Here are the four main topics that still offer substantial hurdles to mass adoption:
- User mindset
- Value proposition
Let's consider each of these topics in a little more detail.
We live in a world in which many do not have a desire or need to build or design anything. There is little incentive for people to get their hands dirty. Because of this, many lack manufacturing knowledge and ability. In this area, though, there is hope. There are trends that are starting to bring back a desire to build and create in the home.
There is a need to cultivate a desire to tinker and create.
The Maker movement has shown that people can design and build objects. In effect, it has rekindled curiosity. This movement is picking up speed. This is a positive step toward encouraging the use of devices like 3D printers, as well as other manufacturing methods, in the home environment.
Just having a 3D printer in the house is not enough; a user needs to have something to make with it. Content poses a much larger problem than I think many are willing to acknowledge. Do you have a repository of 3D models, or do you try to encourage original content? What about scanning objects as a source for models? I think all these elements will have a place, but it will be interesting to see where the market shakes out, because each of these items has its own challenges.
The repository method is attractive, but it will be fraught with copyright and patent issues. This could be the worst combination of the smartphone wars dashed with some RIAA-type groups for extra fun. (The Recording Industry Association of America represents recording industry distributors in the United States.) Similarly, using 3D scanning will open up issues that have yet to be seen by the courts. Can you have fair use of a copied 3D object? OEMs could enter the legal battle, because many of them make significant amounts of profit on replacement parts. I believe we have yet to see significant movement in these legal areas. There is yet to be a financial incentive for companies to make movement in the courts.
If the other two methods become legal landmines, that leaves original content creation as the method of choice. This will require the MCAD market to innovate and be laid open for disruption of their business models. Many MCAD products are expensive, though this is partially due to lack of competition and lack of market size. If the market were to expand by a few orders of magnitude, how would it react? One challenge would be to encourage people to learn the skills required to use MCAD-type programs. A big challenge for the MCAD providers will be to make a complex program as simple as a smartphone application. If significant amounts of time were required to learn the product, this would limit market growth. Too many people are just not inclined to learn complex software.
I see the issue of content being one of the biggest obstacles to the widespread adoption of 3D printing. This is not as much a technical issue and it is a potential legal landmine. It is not insurmountable, but it will require time to build up momentum, as well as some pioneers willing to get thrown to the lions as the legal issues get worked out. In the meantime, MCAD vendors may find a market opportunity to expand their user base.
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