According to Wohlers Associates, the 3D printing industry is expected to grow by approximately 31% per year between 2013 and 2020, and eventually generate more than $21 billion in worldwide revenue. While the printing industry roughly tracked this growth rate in 2014, it's impossible to know with certainty whether it will continue to grow along this forecasted trajectory.
During the Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York City last month, 3D printing specialist Steve Heller had the opportunity to interview Mcor Technologies' CEO Conor MacCormack about his growth expectations for the industry in the years ahead.
Headquartered in Ireland, Mcor offers 3D printers that use ordinary copy paper as their primary material. Consequently, Mcor's professional 3D printers are capable of producing 3D-printed objects in monochrome and full color for a fraction of its competitors' costs, as those machines rely on expensive proprietary materials.
In the following video, the Heller and MacCormack discuss the difficulties of making long-term industry predictions, what will it take for the 3D printing industry to "cross the chasm" and represent a greater percentage of manufacturing, and the role that education plays in the future growth of 3D printing.
A full transcript follows the video.
Steve Heller: Looking out at the opportunity of 3D printing -- Mcor specifically and then just the industry in general -- can you put this opportunity into context? Is there any way we can understand this opportunity?
Not just necessarily a dollar figure; is there a market share figure? Is there something else out there that maybe we should be looking at and thinking about?
Conor MacCormack: I think this is always going to be the challenge. It's very difficult to pick a number or a value.
Just a case in point, we have our own projections of where we think we're going to go with our own technology, and we know where we're going to go in terms of verticals and markets, and even hardware in time as we move down throughout the years.
Then all of a sudden the news came out in China there last week that they're going to put in 400,000 printers across schools in China, and that just completely blows out everybody's growth predictions.
It's almost impossible to come up with a number. All you can say is, "Is it going to make a difference? Is it going to make an impact on people's lives?" If it is, then the growth is going to be very, very large for the foreseeable future.
It's very hard to predict, but even though our company has 10 years on the go, a lot of these other companies are very big, public companies. We're only really scraping the surface.
The total combined value [of the 3D printing industry] is in the couple of billions – [compared to what] other sectors are doing. The CNC sector of milling machines is something like a $90 billion market. There's so much talk about 3D printing because of the potential that it offers, but it hasn't materialized yet because we're only scraping the surface.
Heller: What do you think is going to cross the chasm, if you will? Basically right now the industry generated about $4.1 billion [according to Wohlers Report 2015] last year in revenues worldwide across all the companies, which there are hundreds of.
What is it going to take to cross the chasm, to actually represent a larger, more meaningful percentage of manufacturing?
MacCormack: I think it's a couple of things. You need hardware. You need the hardware to get faster. You need the materials to get more like you would have in a conventional, industrial sense. You need faster machines, better materials. But you also need the whole ecosystem; easier to generate the models. That's on the industrial side.
On the consumer side, which I personally believe is the side that's been underplayed ... there has been talk in the industry, especially in the public, in the trading area, "If it's not part of a jet engine or something that goes into an Airbus, what's the point?"
But you see here today [at the conference] where you have groups of students going through and the throng around the scanning areas and the scanning booths.
Who would have thought, a couple years ago, you'd have an app that you'd start up on your phone and the very first thing it does, it has a camera pointing at you -- not what you want to take a picture of -- like Instagram.
Nobody would have been able to predict that, a couple years ago. Who's to say, for example, one of the ways it might happen initially on the consumer side is scanning, that people use their phones, they want to have pictures of themselves scanned.
The engineering and the big industrial guys say, "That's not here. Who cares about [consumer applications]?" But I think that's where the growth is going to happen. The [3D printing] industry isn't going to be the one that's going to make this into everybody's home. It's going to be the consumer that's going to want that.
Until we work out what the consumer wants, it's going to be very hard to predict what makes that jump over the chasm, but something like scanning selfies -- the ultimate selfie! You can imagine, "3D Print Yourself, taking photographs, making the photograph, a 2D image, into 3D.
You can imagine. I was talking to someone today. Their grandfather just passed away. You take an old photograph of that man that's passed away and make that picture into an object that you can actually touch. There's an emotive connection.
It sounds funny, but there is an emotive connection with the likes of 3D printing that you don't get in the industrial sense with metal and some of the other plastics.
I would say that it's a combination of the industrial side getting better materials and better machines and a better ecosystem, and on the consumer side, who knows? Who knows what's going to make it, but something like scanning objects, using your phone, using the scanner of your iPad, and getting that.
Intel [is] coming out with all these 3D [printer] chips. Google [is] coming out with the Tango project, where it's a hand-held device that does full scanning. Something like that is going to cause one of those things to jump over. I believe that's where we're going to see the real propagation of it -- and education.
If you can have a printer in your [child's] school, then parents who can afford to buy a [3D] printer, they're going to want to have their kid do the best at school so they're going to have a printer at home so when they're doing a project, printing out a sword, printing out something from Excalibur, printing out a battle scene at Gettysburg, printing something that you want to show in color for a project.
The parent says, "I want my kid to have that at home. I'm going to get the printer for home." It's going to be the likes of that, that's going to pull the industry along on the consumer side.
The potential, I think, is massive. It's a very undefined term, but with the likes of 400,000 printers going into China schools, you're talking about millions and millions of printers at the consumer level.
Heller: And millions of users too, if you think about it. Hundreds of thousands of printers could be millions of users, so there's a huge future workforce, if you will, of people that are going to be educated with 3D printing all the way through, from kindergarten all the way up. By the time they hit the workforce, it's going to be a mature technology for them.
MacCormack: Yes, it's a classic case where you get people in education. The kids go through, who are used to using the technology, used to designing, used to failing faster.
The other word that people are always using is democratizing innovation. People are always banging on about it, but what that really means is that you're allowing a kid in the classroom to invent.
Some kids aren't going to want to do that. They're writers, or they're into English or history, and they're not going to want to do that. But the ones that are into that, they're going to want to come up with their own ideas, and they're going to invent faster and they're going to fail faster.
It is going to be an exponential growth, and that's the thing. It's not a linear growth, it's an exponential growth. That's all going to be triggered by 3D printing.