Consumers are meh about 3D printers

HPs entry into the 3D printer market isn't likely to change things

3D printing technology has yet to capture the consumer's imagination, according to a report by Juniper Research.

At the same time, killer applications with the appropriate eco-system of software, apps and materials have yet to be identified and communicated to potential users.

Juniper notes that these are still very early days for the consumer offering.

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, takes on many forms, from fused deposition modeling that extrudes thermoplastics through a heated nozzle to direct laser sintering and powder bed and inkjet head printing. Today, the technology is primarily used for rapid prototyping because it removes the need for the expensive and time-consuming process of machining parts.

But 3D printing has captured the imagination of entrepreneurs who've created their own businesses by offering 3D print services, just as 3D printer manufacturers have. Those entrepreneurs are known as "makers" because they make salable products using the technology.

Today, consumers have purchased about 44,000 3D printers for home use. That number is expected to exceed 1 million unit sales globally by 2018, according to Juniper.

Even with a significant increase, those shipments represent relatively limited opportunity in the "medium term," Juniper said in its report. However, it does expect 3D printer sales 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. This in turn will be coupled with a more attractive pricing proposition for consumers," Juniper said in a statement.

Established 2D printing vendors such as HP have yet to "show their cards," but niche and novelty applications are on the increase, Juniper said. For instance, companies such as Hasbro and Hershey's are working with 3D printing vendors to develop unique applications for consumer use.

In March, HP CEO Meg Whitman said the company had solved two of the biggest problems with 3D printing: speed and surface quality.

Whitman, who described the technology "like watching ice melt," said the company is prepped to make a big announcement in June. That announcement time was later changed to this fall.

HP will set its sites on the business market first, where there is a need for faster printers that can make create prototypes and finished products.

HP CTO Martin Fink has said that for the consumer market, the company will likely partner with a service provider, such as FedEx, where customers can send their CAD files for printing.

Len Wagner, a portfolio manager and technology analyst with William Harris Investors, said it's still unclear what HP plans to do, but whatever it does won't likely spur sales.

"My personal opinion is this is not a market mature enough, and if they don't come into it with enough level of support, the right level of systems surrounding it and the right level of maturity, it will be a lot of noise and it will throw the stocks around, but I don't think it will shift the market," Wagner said.

Wagner spoke as part of a venture capitalist panel at the recent "Inside 3D Printing Conference" in New York City earlier this year. "I think there's a lot of expertise required to do this [3D printing] right and I don't know that the market is mature enough yet for the large technology manufacturers to be able to...come in and help to back it," he said.

Terry Wohlers, lead analyst and founder of Wohlers Associates, said HP has been more tight-lipped about 3D printing than any technology in past memory. "They're saying nothing about this, even to people internally who work for the company. We don't know what they're doing. Until they tell us more it's total speculation," Wohlers said.

In January, the Hershey Company penned a multi-year development agreement with printer maker 3D Systems to create a variety of 3D printed chocolate and non-chocolate products and consumer and professional 3D food printers.

"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," said Juniper analyst Nitin Bhas. "Killer applications and content will be the key drivers -- something unique and personalized, which is not available in stores already."

Computerworld's Lucas Mearian shows off the latest in the world of 3D printing, as seen at the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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