Does 3-D Printing Have a Future in Your Home?

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My opinion on 3-D printing can best be described as "evolving." I consider this a good approach when dealing with a technology still very much in an evolutionary stage. Sure, 3-D printing pioneers 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) and Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS  ) have both been around for more than two decades, and their high-end machines are being used for an ever-growing variety of industrial purposes. But for nearly all of those two-plus decades, the average person would have had no idea what 3-D printing actually is, or what its capabilities are. Most still don't -- but that's changing fast.

The biggest evolutionary leap in 3-D printing hasn't been in terms of resolution, print speed, or software accessibility, although all of these elements have helped create the leap I'll discuss today. Stratasys and 3D Systems aren't even on the vanguard of the latest shift, which is part of a multiyear effort by upstart manufacturers to bring the capabilities of industrial 3-D printers to home desktops around the world.

You're about to hear a lot more from the media about the transformative power of 3-D printing, and a lot of it will focus on this 3-D-printing-at-home movement. But what does it really mean? What does it say about the future? Will this shift help or hurt the current industry leaders?

Answering these questions requires more analytical finesse than simply projecting exponential adoption curves out to infinity, because a 3-D printer doesn't have any easy analogues in our lives. It's not at all comparable to a paper-based 2-D printer, which has a simple function and can handle it at low cost. It's not like a computer, which can be miniaturized, networked, and augmented with complementary technologies over time to become something essential and portable, like a smartphone or a tablet.

While I remain optimistic about the long-term industrial adoption of 3-D printing, it's in-home use that's forced my opinion to evolve. Keep an open mind and read on, and perhaps we'll reach a deeper understanding together than we would have doing this sort of research alone.

Chronicling an evolution
In the interest of full disclosure, here is a quick rundown of my evolving analysis on in-home 3-D printing adoption:

Of course, with any evolving technology, one's views can always use some updating as the situation changes. That's where we stand today, thanks to two recent updates that have forced me to again recalibrate my thoughts. A Wired cover story, released earlier this month, delves deeply into MakerBot's new Replicator 2, a stylish $2,200 home unit that purportedly marks MakerBot's "Macintosh moment." However, a Kickstarter project to fund start-up Formlabs' new Form 1 3-D printer might represent an even bigger step forward in home adoption.

Challenges, threats, and opportunities
MakerBot represents a threat to, and an opportunity for, the established market leaders. The company raised $10 million last year from a group of investors that included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to become the brand you recognize if (or when) you decide to pick up a 3-D printer for your own home. Forget 3D Systems' Cube -- the Replicator 2 offers two and a half times as much three-dimensional space to build objects with a resolution that's up to 60% more precise. It costs nearly twice as much as the Cube, but you can easily make the argument that early adopters are more concerned with features than with price points.

It's a threat because 3D Systems has not put its weight behind home adoption and risks losing out on industry leadership if home use takes off. Consider the Replicator 2's cost. If MakerBot can create next-gen Replicators of the same quality for half the price, it could build a billion-dollar business from a million sales to home users. The $10 million funding MakerBot received last year is supposed to, in Wired writer Chris Anderson's words, "scale it into a corporation whose products sell at Target (NYSE: TGT  ) ." Placement in big-box retailers would go a long way toward building the brand awareness necessary to make that billion-dollar business a reality.

It's also an opportunity for the high-end 3-D printer manufacturers. The broader the base of potential 3-D designers, the deeper the design library, and the more useful 3-D printed designs will become to the average person. You may not want to go through the learning curve for 3-D design programs, but as a design community grows, you'll become more able to find just what you want. This ties in to both my 3-D design marketplace concept, and my distributed on-demand manufacturing musings. Wired agrees:

Once you have a design on your computer, you can prototype a single copy on your desktop fabricator -- or upload it to a commercial manufacturing service and generate thousands. Essentially, you "print local" on your MakerBot and "print global" with cloud manufacturing services ranging from Shapeways and Ponoko to Chinese mass-production facilities found through …. The services will even ship the finished goods directly to customers.

If MakerBot is a threat and an opportunity to established players, Formlabs is a heat-seeking cruise missile, aimed at MakerBot, 3D Systems, Stratasys, and everyone else in the industry. In six days, the brand-new MIT spinoff has raised an incredible $1.3 million on Kickstarter from more than 900 backers, with most contributing up the minimum $2,300 that grants them first access to the Form 1 when production begins. In comparison, MakerBot's sold 13,000 printers since 2009.

To understand why, you need to understand something about the differing technologies behind 3-D printing. MakerBot printers, as well as the Cube and every other home device, use a method pioneered by Stratasys known as fused deposition modeling to melt plastic through a tiny nozzle, gradually adding layers to a work in progress until the object's done. Low-end printers suffer from resolution issues, since their nozzles aren't tiny enough and their power isn't high enough to render objects with the smooth fidelity we expect from the things we usually buy in stores.

Now, here's what Formlabs offers by comparison:

Source: Form 1.

This is the difference between fused deposition modeling and stereolithography, a technology pioneered by 3D Systems that builds solid objects from a vat of liquid by curing it with lasers. If the Form 1 succeeds, it will be the first "low-cost" stereolithography printer available, as most models can cost more than $100,000. With enough hardware and software development, this method could be the one that makes in-home 3-D printing truly viable.

Foolish final thoughts
This is an industry with a lot of action just beneath the surface. Home users are still of the hobbyist bent, but that could change as a commercial-scale design and fabrication infrastructure begins to take shape. My greatest reservation remains over the actual usefulness of a 3-D printer in most homes -- try to think about what you might need around the house that would be best acquired by printing it out, rather than ordering it on Amazon or trucking over to Target.

There's undoubtedly a place in many homes for affordable 3-D printers, but these may very well be best-suited for designers and tinkerers, who would benefit tremendously from the quick feedback of a freshly printed physical model. We're still a long, long way off from the make-anything-now ideal of a Star Trek replicator. It may arrive in this century, but I believe that the combination of a strong, diverse design community and a network of on-demand print centers is a more easily achievable goal for the next few years. Invest in that possibility, but don't forget about the future. It sometimes arrives faster than you think.

For more Foolish analysis and insights into 3-D printing, check out the Fool's most popular free report: "The Future Is Made in America." Investors of all temperaments can benefit from our analysts' review of the present and future of this exciting technology. Click here for your free information now.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter, @TMFBiggles, for more news and insights.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of, Stratasys, and 3D Systems. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (20) | Recommend This Article (41)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 3:23 PM, FoolinSD wrote:

    I was invited to a meeting by one of DDD's reseller. It was interesting that even they promoted a competitor to DDD when it came to non-stereolythographic printer.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 5:01 PM, colleran wrote:

    It is hard to see how having a home 3D printer will become common. On the other hand, the availability of home 3d printers has unleashed a potential fountain of creativity. Where that leads is anyone's guess, but it sure is exciting to watch it all happening.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 5:17 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    I have racked my brains tying to envision these for everyday home use. I just can't see it:

    "Hey we are out of plastic forks, let's print up a dozen or so at $2, $3, $5 ?? a piece."

    Definitely for designers and industrial applications and maybe the artistic and creative. Not for the average consumer.

    Perhaps it could be compared to the sewing machine - which less and less homes have because China and economies of scale have reduced cost of goods to practically nothing.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 5:28 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    One more thing.

    In 1978 I went to the Futurama exhibit at Disneyland and they demonstrated the picture phone. They said every home in America would have one by 1988 because the technology and the infrastructure was there. In 1988 no one had picture phones. I learned that just because we can do something doesn't mean people will adopt it.

    "Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could."

    ---- Rudy someone (can't remember his name)

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 7:21 PM, NickD wrote:

    Its gonna be big bigger then ink printers for sure

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 7:42 PM, tyfoidhana wrote:

    Once upon a time there was the brick and im talking about what is now the I phone. Let me print some TP please Id like that in 3 ply. This tech is not limited to plastics anymore than your cell phone was limited to Hello!

    When you dont have to retool a plant to build it , set up the logistics to ship it , and provide the warehouses to store it while you wait for someone to sell it . This is the epitome of instant gratifacation and we all know how we love that.

    10 years 20 years this is coming with a passion a billion people will find a billion uses be there!

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 9:06 PM, rlcato wrote:

    Architects and model-train hobbyist (modellers) comes to mind. Nothing needs to be full size; just a tangible representation. Hollywood, here it comes!

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 9:36 PM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    i am tired of hearing about this 3-d printing stuff. i have had some experience with this technology. the guys i was associated with, they were both doctors. they were trying to do a medical device, trying to make a working prototype. their complaint was that

    the polymer had poor properties. of course, people like that wouldn't even think about the horrid glacial pace of progress in a thing like that.

    some of my other customers use this technology nowadays, but they use it for things like gauging aesthetics, ergonomics, and maybe making a mold for a part of something.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 9:39 PM, drugstock2 wrote:

    The under $1000 home 3D printers is a useful as home photo printer. I can forsee 3D printers at the local Kinkos.

  • Report this Comment On October 02, 2012, at 10:50 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ hbofbyou -

    I like that analogy. It seems to hit closer to the mark for me than those that claim everyone will have one because... science? Also, don't we technically have picture phones now in the form of online video chats, Skype, FaceTime, etc.?

    @ tyfoidhana -

    No one's going to print out toilet paper if it costs less to get it from the store (or delivered.) I mentioned in the article that a 3-D printer is not analogous to a computer, and I stand by that. Economies of scale are still very important considerations when talking about 3-D printing. A home user buying the "wood pulp" cartridge will spend the same amount on toilet paper roll 1 as they will on roll 100. How do you account for that? Do you see a situation where small batches of materials are made cost-competitive with factory-scale material orders and production?

    @ NOTvuffet -

    The raw materials are being worked on, but you're right that materials science doesn't progress anywhere near as quickly as, say, computing power. That is a big limit.

    Thanks for reading, all.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 12:17 AM, Doyle1667 wrote:

    3D printers are the future definitely for household use it may struggle to shake its head out. However it has incredible advantages for construction. Models of 3D printers are being developed to use laser heads and concrete materiel to use a virtual computer program software to create the design of homes. Imagine building a house in 24 hours with very very low cost. Less labor hours, and more accurate detail in how we can layer walls and roofs. We can actually layer walls much thicker than conventional means. This is definitely a game changer if 3D printers can become printers for construction companies knowing the economic advantages and speed it will change the world.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 12:34 AM, daodell33 wrote:

    I just don't see the large scale NEED driving in-home use . . .paper printers are one thing, we were writing, then typing, then printing at home on paper for communication. It was practical and easy to see. 3D printing at home, besides a hobby . . . I just don't see it.

    The real opportunity is in higher-end manufacturing . . .for example, Auto Repair shops, great, great opportunity there . . . Medical Device and custom implants . . . awesome . . .Airplane Manufacturing and Repair . . .another good one.

    Form 1 will have to prove they can go from early adopter to average consumer. There is no market. I'd buy Sodastream before Form1. . .I'll stick with DDD -thx.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 10:27 AM, TopAustrianFool wrote:

    "It's not at all comparable to a paper-based 2-D printer, which has a simple function and can handle it at low cost. It's not like a computer, which can be miniaturized, networked, and augmented with complementary technologies over time to become something essential and portable, like a smartphone or a tablet."

    Actually, it is exactly like that. Both the printing press and the computer were exclusive of industry at one time. Now they are in the home of everyone. So, you are just not going back in history enough to appreciate the similarity. I wonder how old you are? It is symptomatic of a young mind to think that we have always had what we have today.

    The idea is how cheap a technology can be to become part of everyday life for the average citizen. Is that were we are with 3-D printing? Maybe, or it may be like DVD technology. It took a while to catch on and by the time it did, it was short-lived because of the MP3 player.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 10:30 AM, TopAustrianFool wrote:

    "The real opportunity is in higher-end manufacturing . . .for example, Auto Repair shops, great, great opportunity there . . . Medical Device and custom implants . . . awesome . . .Airplane Manufacturing and Repair . . .another good one. "

    These applications require reliability and testing. I am not sure this will happen this way. But I admit the upside to investing with this in mind is huge.

    I see more like small custom parts for home repairs. Or toys.

    At this point the polymer is still very expensive and I don't see the curve coming down anytime soon. I am not sure about this 3-D printing fad.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 10:37 AM, TopAustrianFool wrote:

    3-D printing home use?

    I just realized that environmental regulations for sure will take care of maintaining exclusive printing rights for liscence (monopoly) manufacturers.

    Can you imagine what you will have to do to disposed of all of that solvent, polymer material?

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 10:44 AM, TopAustrianFool wrote:

    Also about polymers... from my background as a polymer engineer/scientist.

    The use of plastic (polymer) parts for applications depend on polymer properties. These same properties dictate manufacturing techniques.

    The use of polymers which can be printed in these 3-D systems has limited properties that make them not very useful for most real life applications except modeling. So, right there this is a huge limitation.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 11:00 AM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    @ TopAustrianFool -

    Simply saying "it was expensive, and now it's cheap" doesn't make a device comparable to another device. Printers and computers satisfied an unmet need in the consumer populace as they became cheaper and gained more functions.

    I know that the device cost will drop over time, because that's what technology tends to do. That doesn't mean that most people will have a reason to own a 3-D printer for their home. The materials you use are still subject to economies of scale, and also to the limitations of the material.

    I have a paper printer because it helps me fill out forms and make hard copies of information I might need later. I look around my home and can't find anything that would validate the purchase of a 3-D printer. The question "what makes more sense for me to 3-D print at home" has never gotten a worthwhile answer, not when I have access to vast consumer catalog of the Internet, including the online 3-D printing marketplaces that allow me to make use of high-end 3-D printers and more varied materials.

    You could 3-D print cheap toys at home. You can also print them at the Shapeways warehouse with a much better machine and pay a nominal shipping charge, and avoid buying a printer you might only ever use a few times.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 1:41 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    3D printer? I would buy one if I can take a picture of someone, scan it and have it create a silicon mask with hair that I can use to fake my way into a social gathering at the Vatican.

  • Report this Comment On October 03, 2012, at 1:50 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    3D printed face? Your wish is my command. Well, sort of:

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2012, at 12:06 PM, JJAinvestor wrote:

    Sure I can see a 3D printer in many hones and offices, but the larger issue IMO , is the time it takes to , design/develop/and program the , drawings,cross section etc.

    Years ago I designed Record stores, back in the 80's was told that albums/cds would be available on a thumbnail size ,, it took ten/fifteen years,

    I do believe it is on it way

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