Antony Bourne, global industry director at IFS, discusses the readiness of the consumer market for 3D printing.
This month I read about Cambridge-based tech company Dovetailed creating the world’s first 3D printed edible raspberry using flavoured gel. The firm is also working on apples and pears and each of the fruits can be customised for flavour as well as texture.
While there‘s a certain enjoyment about growing and picking your own fruit, or should I now say – printing your own fruit – I don’t really see the demand for this type of technology in the consumer space.
Don’t get me wrong, I find the whole concept and process truly fascinating and it certainly serves its purpose when there may not be ease of access to such products. However, I don’t really anticipate much serious uptake with its target market of chefs and foodies.
If we liken this trend to downloading music, in the early years there was Napster, which was free and people abused to get hold of music, often of poor quality. After a year or two it matured and iTunes gave you the option to download officially recorded music at a reasonable cost. This reasonable cost is an important aspect, since consumers will not want to pay for music unless they see the value in it. This also applies to enterprises, since they also want value for money – unless they see the ROI, they will carry on buying from their normal supplier.
3D printing is and will be utilised in the commercial world and I’ve already highlighted the amazing benefits that 3D printing is bringing to industries such as healthcare and construction. But I’m not convinced of its impact in the consumer world, since it will be quite restrictive in what you can really use it for.
Currently, your average person at home will not be able to afford a top quality 3D printer with all the varieties of resin required to manufacture something properly. Another point is that the consumer devices are not sufficiently user friendly to setup, calibrate and operate, so a lot of time and effort is required to start printing small things. Therefore we should not over-promote this new manufacturing process as being the solution to your normal household problems, such as when you need to replace utensils or even create your dinner from scratch.
The report projects that consumer 3D printers will reach annual sales of one million units by 2018, up from 44,000 currently, but notes that it will take at least five years for the technology to find enough wide-scale adoption to reach a ‘disruptive’ phase.
The main reason for this is that so far it has failed to solve a real consumer problem that can’t be solved elsewhere. Why print a piece of fruit when you can buy it in less time for less money?
Juniper notes that ‘killer applications and content’ will be key to driving consumer uptake, by offering something personalised and unique that can’t be purchased in-store or online. The entry of established printing hardware vendors into the market will likely facilitate this, while also driving down costs for the devices themselves by developing a low-end consumer version.
However, even if the consumer market does reach its projected one million units by 2018, is this enough to justify investment in this technology?
To put this into perspective, in its Q4 earnings, Apple reported sales of 33.8 million iPhones in just three months. While there’s no comparing an iPhone with a 3D printer, one million of anything in the consumer market is fairly miniscule and not really an investible industry.
So, while we’ll continue to see 3D printing concepts that whet the appetite, the consumer market won’t be ready for this technology for a while yet. Industrial printing is a different case altogether and will continue to prove a more cost effective and innovative form of manufacturing across many sectors.