3 Obstacles for Household 3-D Printers

The 3-D printing industry took 2012 by storm. Industry heavyweights 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) and Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) saw their share prices soar an astounding 247% and 160%, respectively. Even this eye-popping growth in share price has not stopped analysts and investors from sizing up the disruptive industry for future growth. And why not? Imagine the potential of putting a 3-D printer in every home. Unfortunately, that day may be much further away than we realize.

First, let's acknowledge the tremendous worldwide growth in household 3-D printers since 2007: 

Despite this growth there are several huge obstacles that stand in the way of widespread household adoption. Having the power of a mini-manufacturing facility in your basement, office, or man cave is a romantic idea. However, little thought goes into the current drawbacks of the technology. I present three obstacles – and solutions to each – below.

1. Click and drag is such a drag
I think people get carried away with the idea of making an exact duplicate of any object. Need to design a new handle for your coffee mug? No problem. Just create a perfect virtual copy and print it. If you're off by just one centimeter your handle won't fit and it will be back to square one – time, money, and resin wasted. Positioning your creation on an XYZ plane never seemed so difficult!

Possible solution: The reality is not everyone will possess the skill necessary for this task, but if 3-D scanners develop as planned a chimp could master 3-D design. Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK  ) has created 123D, a free software platform, for creating virtual 3-D objects from photographs that can then be printed. It is not as robust as an actual 3-D scanner, but it is currently the best free alternative.

2. At the press of a button... kind of
Once you master the virtual design aspect (software) you'll have to deal with painfully slow printing (hardware). Need to print a new handle for your coffee mug? That could take the better part of a day. Don't forget, your object needs to harden uniformly to prevent warping or cracking – otherwise you'll need to send it to the printer again. Of course, even this could be preferred to buying a new coffee mug or waiting for the manufacturer to send you a new part. This is especially true for objects with sentimental value ("but that was my favorite mug!").

What happens when your wife demands you print a new handle for her favorite frying pan with that "expensive new toy" of yours (you know it's coming)? Will your printer be able to create objects that withstand varying conditions (heat, rain, apocalypse, etc.) with commercially available resins? Think about it: A desktop vase for pens and pencils has much different strength and safety requirements than something used in cooking and requires an altogether different material.

Possible solution: Before inkjet printers took hold of households it wasn't out of the question to go to your local copy shop. Well, that business model is being reborn. This idea works well for consumers by offloading the risk of printing malfunctions onto the shop. Companies such as Shapeways allow users to upload their designs, choose from over 30 materials, and have the object delivered to their home in 10 days or less. Even Staples (NASDAQ: SPLS  ) is getting into the mix, which recently penned a deal with Mcor Technologies. Its "Easy 3D" service is expected to reach stores in the Netherlands and Belgium in early 2013 before jumping the Atlantic to the U.S.

3. Legal issues
At the moment there are too few cases for the legal system to adequately address the Pandora 's box that 3-D printing will open. Want to print a gun? How about a patented design? Can you sell objects based off the design of another well-known object? Can you print another 3-D printer? Who is liable for harm caused by a printed object? There are many questions that need to be answered, but it seems obvious that manufacturers won't sit idly by and allow their products to be replicated over and over again by some hotshot with a cool new toy. And you thought Apple vs. Samsung was bad...

Possible solution: The beauty of 3-D printing is that it challenges the accepted concept of centralized, industrialized manufacturing. It will force consumers to question everything about where their products come from, how they are made, and how much they cost. Unfortunately, there is a coming avalanche of legal issues that must be sorted out to establish the boundaries of 3-D printers before they gain widespread traction.

Foolish bottom line
My point is that it's still a bit early to base an investment on the potential of personal 3-D printers. But don't take it from me; Stratasys CEO David Reis gave this answer when asked if 3-D printing was ready for home use :

I think the inherent technology is more complex than just 3D printing. There's another dimension of complexity. I can envision 3D printing even in kindergarten. But in the home, I don't see a situation where your doorknob is broken and you print it in the home. Not right now. It's going to take time, not because of the printing process but because of the materials you'll need. It's not like buying ink for your computer printer.

On the bright side, even if analysts whiff on their projections of the personal 3-D printing market industrial 3-D printing is poised for double digit growth for years to come. General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) recently jumped on the bandwagon with its acquisition of Morris Technologies for to print jet engine components. It is quite possible that one day soon you will take a flight on an airplane with 3-D printed parts. That coffee mug handle may have to wait.

Interested in 3-D printing's industrial potential? With the U.S. relying on the rest of the world for such a large percentage of our goods, many investors are ready for the end of the "made in China" era. Well, it's arrived, and with the balance of manufacturing power shifting yet again, you can profit with the "3 Stocks to Own for the New Industrial Revolution." They're the biggest industry disruptors we've seen since the personal computer, and you can read more about them in our free analyst report. Click here to learn more.

Editor's note: The original graph of this article misrepresented the number of printers sold. The Motley Fool regrets the error.


Read/Post Comments (25) | Recommend This Article (9)

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 January 10, 2013, at 6:52 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    'If you're off by just one centimeter your handle won't fit and it will be back to square one – time, money, and resin wasted.'

    Ever thought of placing the object in the 3D printer? This day will for sure come, it will calculate where to print. Result, a perfectly new handle.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 6:57 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    'Once you master the virtual design aspect (software) you'll have to deal with painfully slow printing (hardware). Need to print a new handle for your coffee mug? That could take the better part of a day'

    Dude, they can already print full size chairs in just 3 hours.... And obviously it will get faster and faster in the future. Same happened with computers, they went from slow hard to operate to super fast and easy to use, its just a matter of time.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 7:06 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    'It is quite possible that one day soon you will take a flight on an airplane with 3-D printed parts.'

    This day is already here....

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 7:40 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    'There are many questions that need to be answered, but it seems obvious that manufacturers won't sit idly by and allow their products to be replicated over and over again by some hotshot with a cool new toy.'

    Its happening also on the internet, people get free copys of songs over and over again. With 3D printers it will unfortunately also be the case. But thats the case with many things you buy.... Many things you can buy you could do bad things with it as well. But they are still being sold, you cant take away the freedom for people to buy products you could use for bad intensions.

    They would just make some laws, but that doesnt matter, most people dont need to print guns and replicate the excact same patented object. Just some will do so even if those laws are out there. The ability to print anything you want wont really change, its just at your own risk to do so.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 10:03 AM, arov26 wrote:

    Print a new handle for the frying pan? Are you serious? US of A is a wasteful nation. We throw things out that are still in good condition. Never mind repairing broken household items. The idea that every households will own a 3D printer just like an inkjet printer is ridiculous. Only a handful of DIY's will own one.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 10:16 AM, 3drp wrote:

    A Pollution1 has articulated, much of the future things in the article have been done, but the fact is that only niche items are really feasable. The day of the "replicator" may be here in a few choice cases, but not in typical cases.

    Example, frying pan handle. Most 3D prining materials will not hold up to the heat. You can get some that will, but the equipment and materials are so costly that you could buy a semi full of new frying pans.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 10:19 AM, 3drp wrote:

    What will be interesting in the next couple of years, is the really low cost ($500) 3D printers and their effect on SSYS and DDD. Neither of these companies are really geared toward true mass production, so they will need to rethink their manufacturing or will start to lose market share.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 10:26 AM, 3drp wrote:

    Both companies, and especially SSYS, have made great strides in marketing strategies. The entire concept of "additive manufacturing" as a new technology has been marketed well.

    But the fact is, addifive manufacturing was around long before these companies and it has been used in a more real and successful form. Technically, laminating, powdered metal sintering, casting, and injection molding can be considered examples of additive manufacturing.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 10:35 AM, 3drp wrote:

    P/E ratios of 101 and 87. These companies are scary investments. All it takes is breakthroughs by a couple of the now, few hundred smaller competitors (you used to be able to count all the players on one hand) and these stocks could tumble.

    There are at least 25 or more small competitors using similar processes to SSYS, even DDD has a similar product. With DDD's higher end sintering systems, there are several competitors now. With both Stratasys (Objet)DDD;s 3D printing of UV cured liquids, there are many competitors who are expecting to release sub $2,000 systems within a year or 2.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 10:46 AM, Melaschasm wrote:

    It will be a very long time before a large number of individuals will have a 3D printer. However, such a device would allow a small local store to sell almost everything imaginable. That will be a huge revolution in retail since floor space and inventory will see vast reductions with this new technology.

    Just imagine being able to order from a catalog which makes Amazons selection look tiny, then pick it up the next day.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 11:06 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @3drp

    "All it takes is breakthroughs by a couple of the now, few hundred smaller competitors (you used to be able to count all the players on one hand) and these stocks could tumble."

    You'll enjoy my upcoming article on the rise of open-source 3-D printing. Should be published this week.

    Cheers,

    TMFBlacknGold

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 11:37 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    SSYS and DDD have hundreds of patents, and also its not all about homeprinters, there are tens of millions of stores who will get these 3D printers

    and many factorys will get there own costumised 3D printers its just a super huge market and these DDD and SSYS just have the best name now and people will go for them more likely then others, yes there come new players but not at risk for these 2 big guys in the next 3 years at least

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 11:39 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    "All it takes is breakthroughs by a couple of the now, few hundred smaller competitors (you used to be able to count all the players on one hand) and these stocks could tumble."

    And then SSYS or DDD will buy them ....

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 11:45 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    'It will be a very long time before a large number of individuals will have a 3D printer.'

    According to the stats in this article olmost 25 million personal 3D printers where sold in 2011 alone.

    Considering how simple these personal printers where in 2011 thats already ALOT.

    Imagine how many will buy when they get more advanced, multiple coulor printing multiple material printing , better accuracy etc

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 12:14 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @pollution1

    You certainly live up to your user name...

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 1:08 PM, dion2727 wrote:

    the comments above are talking in terms of a micro view.you can relate this to the earliest version of mobile phones or even computers in both size and capabilities.thus 3d will and is going through the same process EXCEPT at a significantly higher pace than phones and computers due to the massive technological advances as well as a worldwide technically savvy people.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2013, at 9:04 PM, NickD wrote:

    Printed clothes saw it it's happening will only get better in few decades we might all be sitting on a gold mine.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2013, at 11:40 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    23 million worldwide 3d printers sold in 2011. Where do you get this stats, i in another website they said over 23000 desktop printers sold and 6494 professional printers.... i might have put 3 zeros to much lol

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2013, at 11:43 AM, pollution1 wrote:

    i mean 'YOU' might have put 3 zeros to much?

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2013, at 12:05 PM, NickD wrote:

    Take any technology 20-30 years ago and now picture 3-d printing in 20-30 years.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2013, at 10:00 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @pollution

    The numbers are correct as reported by Wohlers, a leading additive manufacturing analyst.

    @iseeksafestocks

    3-D printing has already been around for 20-30 years. Many patents for DDD and SSYS were filed in the 80's and 90's.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 7:51 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    There was a mistake in making the graph. My source incorrectly quoted Wohlers' numbers by a factor of 1,000. Goes to show why you need to double check your numbers, even when they are from a trusted source! It should be updated shortly.

    TMFBlacknGold

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 1:53 PM, pollution1 wrote:

    ok i see you changed it now, maybe its a good idea to think yourself about the numbers you post because it didnt make sence at all even though you said its right because the source said so...

    better dont post if you just copy paste things lol, saw this many times here on motly fool, wrong numbers totally wrong very annoying

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 5:24 PM, NickD wrote:
  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 5:27 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    Sweet infographic!

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