Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) made the maker community jump for joy when it announced that the upcoming version of Windows 8.1 due out later this year will feature out-of-the-box 3-D printing support. For the Windows 8.1 end user, setting up a 3-D printer should be a similar experience to setting up a plug-and-play 2-D printer. This certainly will make life easier for a demographic of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, but will it be the spark that ignites a consumer-driven 3-D printing revolution?
As you can imagine, 3-D printing companies are pretty pumped about Mr. Softy's vote of confidence. At Microsoft's annual Build Conference, 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) demoed a Surface Tablet sending instructions to its consumer-oriented $1,299 Cube printer. Rajeev Kulkarni, general manager and vice president of 3D Systems' consumer solutions, believes that having support from Windows 8.1 gets 3-D printing closer to mainstream. "It makes it seamless to get 3-D printing in your home," he added.
Betting the farm
Last month, Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) made quite the splash when it acquired leading consumer-enthusiast 3-D printing company MakerBot for $403 million in stock up front and, potentially, another $201 million of stock or cash if the company hits performance incentives through the end of 2014. I don't know about you, but $604 million for a company that's only earned $11.5 million in the first quarter seems like a lot of money.
Not to mention, the "personal" 3-D printing industry was only estimated to be worth about $38.2 million in 2012, and experienced a significant decline in growth from the previous four years. From 2008 to 2011, the personal 3-D printer segment experienced an average growth rate of 346% each year, whereas in 2012, it grew by 46.3% from 2011. For the time being, it could indicate that aggregate demand for personal 3-D printers is beginning to wane, given the lack of material advancements beyond plastic at the consumer level.
Although the consumer-oriented 3-D printing market gets a lot of media attention, it represented less than 2% of the $2.2 billion 3-D printing industry last year. Additionally, the fact that 70% of 3-D printing is already done on Windows tells me that this move is more about pleasing existing users than it is to attract new users. If 3-D printing is really going to take off with consumers, the range of materials that can be printed needs to be expanded greatly. Until then, the 3-D printing revolution will continue taking place in the industrial world.