The hype for 3D printers has been enormous.
As prices for the intriguing devices have fallen the stories about all the fabulous (and potentially dangerous) things the technology could be used for came fast and furious. 3D printers would not only change how certain businesses operate, they would become amazing tools for home use. Like that Elvis commemorative plate you see on the shopping channel? Buy a template and make them at home. Can't pass a federal background check? Just download 3D printer plans for a gun and you'll be armed and dangerous in less time than it takes to say "pry it from my cold, dead hands."
Despite all the possible uses and seemingly endless potential behind the devices, sales of 3D printers for home use have been slow and a leading research company expects it to stay that way for the next few years.
Juniper Research estimates that 44,000 3D printers will sell this year with that number rising over one million sold in 2018.
The news is not all bad for 3D printer companies and retailers like Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS), which sells the Cube line of 3D printers starting at $1,299.
"While shipments are at relatively low levels, representing a limited opportunity in the medium term, Juniper expects them to increase significantly beyond the five-year period. This will be a result of an ever widening scope of applicability, driven by the entry and growth of the more established printing vendors, such as HP (NYSE:HPQ). This in turn will be coupled with a more attractive pricing proposition for consumers," Juniper wrote.
Basically 3D printing has not arrived beyond niche uses and tech early adopters. Whether it will move beyond those markets depends a lot on whether the category can move from being cool to practical.
What do home 3D printers do?
The Cube is a good example of a 3D printer aimed at home use. Its $1,299 cost puts it below the Afinia H480 3D printer sold at RadioShack for $1599, and above the Solidoodle SD-3DP-4 for sale on Amazon. The device prints in 3D, which, as the company describes it, means that "instead of putting ink onto a flat surface like regular printing, it builds up material in three dimensions to create a real object."
The Cube can print items up to 5.5" x 5.5" x 5.5", using material cartridges in 16 colors.
To do that it melts plastic filament then draws with it in a very fine layer. It then builds another fine layer on top, then another, and another, building your idea in slices until you have a plastic object ready to hold. In theory 3D printers can be used to make just about anything -- Cube lists "earrings, robots, planes, mugs, doorknobs, dog toys, dog tags, real shoes, phone cases, floating bath toys, napkin rings, linked bracelets, and chess pieces" among possible uses.
Why has 3D printing not caught on?
Consumers seem to like reading about 3D printers more than they have been willing to buy them. Price has clearly been a factor, but they're falling and new players will push them further down. The real reason 3D printing has yet to catch on appears to be consumer comfort with the devices.
"The only thing that's holding people back from having it is the user experience," Pirate3d CEO Roger Chang told told GigaOM. "From the design to the software interface, it's not very user-friendly. It doesn't make you happy to use it. That's what's stopping 3D printers from being adopted right now."
Pirate3d is one of a number of companies that successfully raised funds using the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The company raised $1.4 million from 3,250 backers.
Juniper Research's Nitin Bhas agrees that the public simply needs to know more about the technology before it can catch on.
"Educating and motivating the public on the idea of 3D printing to create everyday objects is critical for the long-term success of this segment. Killer applications and content will be the key drivers -- something unique and personalized, which is not available in stores already," she wrote.
It's also possible that regular people want to just buy things in stores instead of making them themselves no matter how easy the process is. With Amazon -- a company that sells virtually everything -- working hard to improve its delivery times, customers might prefer just waiting for delivery.
3D printing may not be the next big thing
Lots of predicted "next big things" in the technology world never quite happened or happened on a schedule entirely different than originally predicted. Remember the Apple Newton? That device was a forefather of the iPad, but it never caught on and likely led to more jokes than it did sales. Similarly other next big things like 3D TV, home automation, and virtual reality have more hype than sales. That does not mean they will never catch on -- just that they haven't yet.
For now and for the foreseeable future 3D printing is a niche -- closer to a hobby for a select few than anything with mainstream appeal. There may be a day when 3D printing becomes so easy that it crosses over from techies and early adopters to general use, but there is no guarantee that day comes.
For now 3D printers are the bread makers of our times. They work and make a lovely loaf of "fresh bread," but the store sells bread as well -- there's no real reason for most people make it themselves, no matter how easy it is.