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.
Editor's note: The original graph of this article misrepresented the number of printers sold. The Motley Fool regrets the error.
The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, General Electric Company, Staples, and Stratasys and has the following options: Short Jan 2014 $55 Calls on 3D Systems and Short Jan 2014 $30 Puts on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.