State of Home 3D Printing (Summer 2013)

The home 3D printing market has changed a lot since I wrote about the state of the market last fall.

Consumables: Cheaper and Easier to Get

Maybe not the most dramatic change, but one which makes a big difference is that it has gotten a lot easier to find high quality, inexpensive filament for home 3D printers. At the beginning of 2012, when I first got started, there were only a handful of suppliers. "Out of Stock" was the order of the day (many sellers were perpetually out of more than half their colors), and when you could get plastic it was often poorly extruded and jammed frequently.

All that has changed. There are now dozens of places to buy filament online (including Amazon), and quality control has become much better. I'm also seeing prices come down a lot: from $60/kg in early 2012 (including shipping) to where it's easy to find reputable plastic for $35-$40/kg today. If you're willing to buy in bulk, you can cut that down to under $20/kg, though specialty plastic like glow in the dark is going to be a little more expensive.

There are also some interesting new materials on the market now, like flexible plastic, color-changing plastic, and even "wood." Some of these are challenging to print well, but they give the serious hobbyist some fun options that not even the commercial-grade printers have.

Stratasys Buys Makerbot

Just in the past few weeks it was announced that Stratasys, an 800-lb gorilla of the commercial 3D printer market, is buying Makerbot, the 800-lb gorilla of the hobby 3D printer market.

This acquisition makes a lot of sense for Stratasys, since the hobby market poses a clear competitive threat to the high-end commercial machines. Many hobbyist-grade printers can do nearly everything a Stratasys machine can do, and at a tenth (or less) the cost. The main difference is that the commercial machines are generally more reliable and easier to use. A significant segment of the market will be willing to put up with the quirks of a hobbyist-grade machine for the cost savings, and the usability gap has been closing fast.

I see this acquisition possibly going either of two ways. The more exciting outcome will be if Stratasys really commits to nurturing the hobbyist market. Stratasys has a lot of technology and a patent portfolio which could be deployed to significantly improve the Makerbot printers without a significant price increase. If Stratasys does this, they will likely own the hobbyist market for many years to come.

The more depressing alternative will happen if Stratasys tries to defend its high-end printer business, and winds up crippling Makerbot. This sort of thing happens all too often when a large established company buys a smaller upstart rival. The larger company doesn't want to risk undercutting its existing business, so it carefully segments the market and doesn't allow the acquired company to develop products which might threaten the established business. Eventually, the innovation which drove the smaller company to its initial success gets strangled by the needs of the larger parent company.

It will probably be a couple years before we know how this acquisition shakes out. I really want to see it succeed, but I don't think the odds are in Makerbot's favor. It's just too hard to escape the big-company logic of not undermining your own products.

So, Have You Printed a Gun?

One of the unfortunate side-effects of the massive hype over 3D printing is that you get people trying to ride the wave to promote their own agenda. For the benefit of future readers (in case this has been mercifully forgotten in a few months), recently someone managed to 3D print a gun and fire it without killing himself. This was intended to make some sort of political point about firearm regulation: I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but it was something along the lines of "if anyone can 3D print a gun, then there's no point in trying to regulate them, so just give up."

Others have made the counter-arguments, which boil down to "anyone with access to basic metalworking tools can already make a gun, so what's your point?" and "why would you bother when it's easier and safer to buy a manufactured gun," and "just because something is easy doesn't mean it should be legal." My own opinion is that this is really just a publicity stunt, and only distracts from the more interesting (and separate) issues surrounding 3D printing and firearm regulation. It clearly is not a demonstration of either a particularly useful application for 3D printing, or responsible gun ownership.

But because it has been in the news so much, the first question I always get is, "So, have you printed a gun?" And it seems to me that if the only thing the average Joe on the street knows about 3D printing is that you can print a gun, that's not a good thing for anyone.