What 3D printing needs to go mainstream

What 3D printing needs to go mainstream

Summary: Monday Morning opener: 3D printing is a fun market to watch. Here's a look at a few things that need to fall in place to make 3D printing mainstream for enterprises and ultimately consumers.


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.

CNET: Giant tablets, 3D printers among top school technology for 2014


  • 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.

Topics: CXO, Emerging Tech, Printers

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  • Cost and efficiency

    At the moment, most printers are too slow and too expensive to run to be economical.

    They are great for prototying and short runs, but ones you get into hundreds of thousands or millions of units, they can't match traditional processes for speed or price. That is the big challenge at the moment.

    How many of the industrial 3D printers currently on the market can produce millions of items a day at a fraction of a cent per item? (Genuine question, I only know the speeds and costs of the semi-pro models, which suit themselves to prototyping.

    Where I can see them being useful is in building spare parts for older equipment - classic cars and electronics and machiners from the last century, where the manufacturer no longer produces the parts (if they are still in business) and making new parts is expensive and time consuming. For example, being able to print a new metal running board for a Ford Model A.
  • It's iTunes all over again...

    It's not the machine, it's the software! Focus on the entire process...
    Tony Burzio
  • ??

    are you saying we're going to have to put up with 2nd rate software a clunky interface and a walled garden?
  • HP used to be in this market

    It was not that long ago that HP branded another manufacturer's 3D printer (I can't remember whose), but decided to exit this route to market. Undoubtedly, if HP were to do to 3D what they did to 2D, the market will grow exponentially. Perhaps their departure was to allow them to develop their own technology once the market had matured a bit, however, I have no idea regarding their real reason to quit.

    Another change is required, however, and that is a standardisation of the consumables. At the moment, every manufacturer and every process has a unique set of consumables. Standardise these and units costs will fall dramatically with a commensurate increase in the market size.
  • Consumer needs a "killer app" of sorts.

    I'd say the consumer side needs a "killer app" of sorts. People need to see the point of 3D printing before they'll buy it. If it's just a cool toy, it'll remain niche.
    • Here's one

      How about model making. You know. Model airplanes, model cars, model ships. The ones which have disappeared because the originating company either is gone or doesn't want to bring back that model.

      Or how about if yo need one piece which you've lost in something you're building. Or maybe it's an extra piece you need. And it's Saturday night after store closing times and you need the finished project for Monday 9am sharp and the nearest store you could orer it from is too far away to have the piece delivered on time.
      • Still sounds niche :/.

        Nice idea, but model making sounds kinda niche. I know people who make them, but there seems to be more who don't.
    • Killer app will be called something like "Replicator"

      And it will require the hardware to work in tandem with the printer itself.

      The tech is there already. I have no idea of the economics involved.

      It will work a whole lot like this:

      Joe has an item he wants 6 of. He places the item in his printer. Lasers scan the item housed in the printer bay and sends the info to the printers software which creates the proper data map for the printer to follow. The original item is removed from the printer bay and the printer then begins to replicate the scanned item.

      Now that's commercial/retail havoc. Being able to do that as easy as 1,2,3 will make it a different world than it is today.

      Of course trademark and patent lawyers will go mad. But once that particular cat is out of the bag...its goodbye old world, hello new world.
  • Software Ecosystem

    How can you mention Adobe without mentioning the 3D printing support built into Windows 8.1?

  • Slightly off topic but ...

    is anyone developing a hybrid unit that will be able to print both metal and plastic? Although that would probably be too expensive for consumers, it could make a huge difference to companies.

    Ideally such a product would ultimately have "full integration", able to print plastic, then metal, then plastic, etc., as a single process and unit, e.g., plastic eyeglass frames held together by metal screws. Realistically, if that EVER will be possible it will probably be quite far off.

    But even being able to create parts in the same print space would be useful.
    • Think out of the box!

      Use your existing printer as a "hybrid"! I've already combined metal parts , and encapsulated PCB's into several 3D printed parts... You just need to know how to do it
  • What it needs to go mainstream for consumers are

    really the same thing that brought personal computers into the mainstream.

    It needs to be cheap enough that people can afford it without financing,

    and it needs to have some kind of "killer app" to it -- for PC's it was office software, printing, spreadsheets, and other stuff that was a heck of a lot more convenient than filing drawers and using a typewriter.

    For 3D printers, I don't know what it will be, but it seems like a "physical design" iTunes-like store could really help kick it into mainstream, since most consumers won't know what to do with the CAD software necessary to design stuff.
    Jacob VanWagoner
  • New start up: on-line repository for spare parts

    There is a new start-up that supply the service for manufacturers of saving cost on manufacturing older, hard to source parts in terms of inventory savings. hope it will be a win
  • It is my opinion simple

    Consumer based 3D printers have to be able to produce useful things for people. The number one way they will enter the consumer market in any substantial way in my opinion is through the kitchen.

    3D printing items of food or used in the preparation of food.
  • Love It! need better filament costs though

    The things that 3D printing can do are so cool to see! Everything from 3D printed casts for broken limbs to printing toys for the kids are great, but just as was mentioned above regarding inkjet printers, ink is expensive... It goes without saying that the parallel to that in 3D printing is that the filament you use in your 3D printer is very pricy. Some spools of filament can place a dent in your wallet of over forty dollars!
    Luckily, with the growing market for desktop 3D printing, there have also been solutions created to offset the high cost of filament: the home-based filament extruders have started to make their mark on the industry as well by allowing consumers to purchase raw pellets that they can then run through a machine that melts the pellets and extrudes them as filament, all for a fraction of the cost of a spool.
    Names such as Filastruder, ExtrusionBot and Filabot are just a few of the home-based extruders that have surfaced; each offering the opportunity to make your own filament at a much lower cost. My personal favorite is the ExtrusionBot. It can extrude ABS or PLA filament at up to 3 feet per minute and can even do it in different colors! ExtrusionBot also takes up the least amount of space of any of these extruders so it fits perfectly right next to the 3D printer.
    • Ha! Thats the cats behind!

      "Filastruder, ExtrusionBot and Filabot are just a few of the home-based extruders that have surfaced; each offering the opportunity to make your own filament at a much lower cost."

      But we know how that ends, as brilliant as it is.

      To compete in the conventional printer market, price of the hardware began to drop based on recouping lost leader revenue by way of illogical but "doably" high prices for replacement ink.

      Logic being-many people can afford a sub-$200 printer, particularly if they are getting something that will not only produce high quality documents, color photographs and do double sided printing and scan, copy and work as a fax machine. Many people can afford, even if it erks them, printer ink replacement at $20, $30 or more per tank from time to time. If that ink cost provides for excessive profits, there you go.

      But of course, just like your "make your own filament at a much lower cost" devices, it wasnt long before the business world opportunists soon recognized that the ink was being sold at ridiculously over priced margins and it wasn't long before copy-cat ink tanks and bulk ink to perform "tank refills" at significantly reduced prices appeared. Of course it takes time for the magnitude of such a problem to sink into the minds of the corporations who produce and sell underpriced printing hardware which they expect to be subsidized by sales of their brand name ink tanks.

      Their solutions began arriving finally enmass by way of printer hardware that checked for tank identification, so non brand tanks were eventually sunk, and creating tamperproof tanks that made tank refilling a task beyond the interests of the majority of the public became the norm.

      If 3D printer hardware costs are eventually purposely crashed by the manufacturers in the same hope to recoup the lost revenue by way of filament sales, they now are already aware of the roadmap they need to follow to avoid the lost "lagtime" they incurred with 2D printer ink when bootleg ink replacement was rampant.

      It wont be long, if this is the rout taken, where all the same precautions are taken in the design of 3D printers that it took them awhile to implement in 2D printers to insure only the name brand ink would be typically used. They will make it so difficult to use random bootleg filament, or self manufactured filament wont be accepted by 3D printers.

      I don't know if manufacturers will actually go this route though, perhaps some years from now, but inherently, the way our world still works today, and for the foreseeable future, your standard 2D printing was a phenomenon of all human societies for as long back as we can see. Business and numerous homes had relied on typewriters for decades to do the simplest of document production, but it was seen to be necessary, and many homes that didn't have a typewriter often from at least time to time wished that they did. In those instances a person would have to go to a friend or family member that had a typewriter or get someone to do it professionally for them.

      And we simply don't have that kind of a need or demand for 3D printing, yet, that existed for 2D printing for years and years before the standard desktop computer went household and brought the capacity to most of the world.

      With 2D printing, it wasn't long before everyone wanted a printer, or 2, because everyone, practically, had a computer that could make endless use of it. They already, long before the PC came along, would have liked to be able to print their own pictures, create typewritten letters and documents and school work, or even be able to do "work" from home if they had of had a typewriter. That kind of pent up demand obviously creates a "race to the sales floor" kind of mentality in the industry, and in so far as pricing goes, it drives prices down, of course when someone decided that you could practically give away hardware if the ink was going to recoup the costs, well they all had to follow suit.

      There is nothing in society, yet today, that has the same general historical broad based pent up need for most businesses and homes to be able to create 3D objects on a regular basis, or even from time to time. There really isn't some "lesser" product already hard at work, like the typewriter was for 2D printing, doing that kind of work already, just not as efficient or diversely as a 3D printer could. So, while 3D printing certainly isn't some completely foreign concept that will be difficult to sell its potential usefulness, its not something the homes and businesses around the world are already often engaged in, in some more rudimentary fashion.

      It strikes me that while 3D printing easily has fantastic potential to one day become a household item, its got to work its way in a bit before it gets that far. I find it hard to believe that 3D printing will not eventually be horribly disruptive to the manufacturing industry as it is today. But its a dvice that has such "never used/explored" potential that we have gotten by in modern society, interestingly enough in modern society, without having to make a whole lot for ourselves besides dinner. The farther back one goes in time, of course people had to be more self sufficient and had to make a whole lot of what they owned for themselves. But not for today, yesterday and several decades long gone.

      I have no doubt that 20 years from now we will be able to sit around and chat easily about the historic impact 3D printing has had on society generally.
  • MAKE Magazine also featured the ExtrusionBot as a product to watch

    3D printing is about to revolutionize many industries, the medical field, business verticals as well as education. It is already having a huge impact "behind the scenes" in the military, university research etc. which is why most consumers/individuals are not aware of the value of 3D printing. They have not yet seen it in action and, therefore, don't understand how 3D printing is useful in their lives. Once they understand how it can/will work for them in their daily lives, 3D printing will become mainstream. And yes, it will become a household item - when someone needs a specific sized screwdriver to fix the sink or needs a sprinkler head which is no longer in production and realizes these items can be made at home with a 3D printer. Plus, as mentioned above, you can make your own filament at home also. You can see the ExtrusionBot making filament on Youtube. In-home use of 3D printers will become mainstream when people begin to understand how easy they are to use and what the actual benefit to them is such as making a screwdriver or a sprinkler head instead of ordering online or going to the store. Once people become aware of how 3D printers can enhance and enrich their lives, they will become mainstream in households.