3D printing is one of the notable tech developments to watch for 2014, but it's unclear whether the parts and conditions are in place to truly go mainstream for consumers and enterprises.
Based on what we know today, it's clear that 3D printing has a much better chance to go mainstream with enterprises first. After all, companies like 3D Systems are large enough to have strong relationships with manufacturers. Stratasys is another large player with innovative technology and enough of track record for IT buyers.
Wall Street analysts project that the largest 3D printing players will have $1 billion in revenue by the end of 2016, about double from sales estimates for 2013. High-end systems, about $1 million a pop, are used in manufacturing operations and driving sales.
The big questions: Are we there yet? When will 3D printing go mainstream? And what needs to happen for an ecosystem to develop? Today, 3D printing is either for relatively large companies and hobbyists. Here are a few thoughts on what needs to happen for 3D printing to be so mainstream your mother will ask about it.
- A narrative. 3D printing is being used in manufacturing or Stratasys and 3D Systems wouldn't have a collective $1 billion in revenue in 2013. There are real returns, design and prototyping advances and efficiency behind 3D printing on a mass scale. The industry has had some trouble telling their customer stories. That fact isn't that surprising given enterprise giants often can't piece together a good story either. Stratasys with its latest Objet500 Connex3 Color Multi-material 3D Printer outlined what Trex Bicycle was doing with the system. More case studies like Trex are needed.
- Integration and implementation partners. Enterprise software needs consultants and integrators like IBM and Accenture and it's not a stretch to see that 3D printing companies are going to need similar help. Today, 3D printing is a nice-to-have venture in manufacturing. Big integrators could start pitching supply chain reinvention stories.
- New personalized products. Custom products tailor made for individuals but available to the masses could be a compelling story. If a product was designed and optimized for 3D printing distribution in an industry rivals would follow the leader in a hurry. CNET: Giant tablets, 3D printers among top school technology for 2014
- Disruption. 3D printing could enable small companies to manufacture on the fly like large ones to some degree. Should a startup come up with a hit product, avoid Chinese sourcing and all the headaches that go with a global supply chain and punch a few giants in the mouth, 3D printing will become must buys for enterprises.
- A real total cost of ownership and return on investment story. Tie 3D printing and the prototype agility to revenue it's a win. Outline the cost savings on manufacturing older, hard to source parts in terms of inventory savings and it's a win. There aren't enough deployments yet to nail down hard numbers, but there will have to be enough figures to entice CFOs to sign the checks.
- Big enterprise players. It's quite possible that enterprises see 3D Systems and Stratasys as the next generation Hewlett-Packard. However, enterprise buyers like to stick with known names. Should HP enter the market and bring a few rivals along, 3D printing and its returns will at least garner more enterprise interest.
- A software ecosystem. Adobe's move to include 3D modeling in its Creative Cloud was a positive first step for small business adoptions and prototypes via creative professionals. But there needs to be more of that where 3D printing is available just as your inkjet would be. This ecosystem would also be needed on the business side of the equation.
- Lower prices. 3D printers are going to have to hit the $400 ballpark to be an option for consumers. To hit those price points, you're going to need players with scale like HP and Canon to enter the market. And then there are the supplies. If ink is a pain in your budget, just imagine what 3D printing supplies will run you.
- Household names. Making headway in the consumer market is going to be expensive for 3D printer makers. It's likely that the likes of HP and Canon are among the few that will have the marketing budgets to educate the masses.
ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.