Are you stocking 3D printers yet?

Chris Connery, VP of global research at Context, asks whether 3D printing will appear in your average home any time soon.

The new wave of more affordable desktop 3D printers has created fresh buzz that consumer 3D printing has finally arrived. The likes of M3D’s Micro and the Tiko are examples of lower-priced 3D printers that have made recent news headlines, bringing promises of increased usability and more affordable prices. However, in reality, while personal 3D printing might be here to stay, consumer 3D printing might not be as close as some are predicting.

PC comparisons
Watching the 3D market evolve, one cannot help but draw comparisons to the early stages of the PC market. In the beginning, PCs were still hard to use and often required significant hand-holding before and after the sale. Ultimately, this is where 3D printing is. Regardless of how well reviewed they are, even the best desktop 3D printers are currently far from “plug and play” for the average consumer.

Beyond those purchasing desktop printers for work or school, other buyers are part of a hobbyist/do-it-yourself class of consumers called ‘makers’. Unless you are a skilled “maker” or an engineer, most desktop printers still struggle to make consistent objects when attempting models beyond basic complexity. Additional stumbling blocks that need to be overcome to move this market past the ’maker’ phase into the hands of general consumers, include reducing time required to print, simplifying content creation (i.e. making 3D files oneself, either via scans or from CAD-like software).

Teach first
So where is consumer 3D printing likely to appear and establish itself first? In the early days of the personal computer, while PC companies also wanted every household to eventually be a PC household, many fully recognised that education and exposure were key. It required a generation to first become comfortable with the technology before it really took off; thus companies like Apple focused their sales effort on such markets as schools.

This new crop of affordable, personal 3D printers are wonderful teaching tools. With a global focus on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) more and more schools are recognising this each day. Each generation exposed to 3D Printing will become more comfortable with the technology. Like with the personal computer, for many this exposure will come by way of school or university.

Image conscious
So if your run-of-the-mill consumer is not the one purchasing a 3D printer anytime soon, why are they appearing more and more on retail shelves?

Returning to lessons learnt during the rise of the PC; while actually selling desktop computers to businesses, government entities and educational institutions, PC companies also targeted general consumers by way of distributing products through bricks-and-mortar retailers across the globe.

Many came to soon recognise that targeting office users was more profitable in the near term but that the exposure to so many by way of general retail was also invaluable, even if it was less quantifiable measure. Showcasing tomorrow’s devices in the storefront demonstrates that a given retailer is at the cutting edge of technology.

Companies like Microsoft recognise this, and have started planning 3D printers in retail outlets for some time now. Sure Microsoft has them for sale at the store, but the company is mostly using the technology as part of its branding effort. By showcasing the technology there, Microsoft stores become a destination retailer like Apple stores.

Additionally, every B2B buyer is also a consumer on the weekend, correct? So each engineer, architect, student and software developer using a 3D printer in a work or office environment on the weekdays, also shops at Tesco, Dixons, Currys, PC World and the like on weekends. This link is likely where consumer sales will begin in earnest and is crucial to the growth of the industry.

One for the future
The desktop 3D printing market continues to grow at a decent rate – with 61 per cent more printers shipped globally in the 1st half of 2015 compared to 2014. While consumer electronics retailers can be a part of this growth, they are not expected to lead the effort. Despite this, having 3D Printers available in major retail outlets across the globe makes sense for both the retailer as well as the 3D printer manufacturers.

However, at this stage, the return-on-investment in placing 3D printers in High Street retailers comes under the banner of ‘advertising and brand development’, rather than on the number of units shipped. While sales into education and to businesses continue to rise, consumer sales figures, as well as the chance of a 3D printer appearing under your Christmas tree anytime soon, are likely to remain relatively low in the short-to-medium term.

Chris Connery is the VP of global research at Context.

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