CES is the annual barometer for what technologies we consumers should expect to see, use, and covet in the coming years. And as I explored this year’s show, I feared that 2001 A Space Odyssey was the inspiration for a lot of smart home technology, I was confused about how neuro-light masks are supposed to make me sleep more soundly, and I gained absolute confidence that consumer 3D printing, having enjoyed a decade at CES, won’t be around for the next one.
What leads me to believe this is that the caliber and number of 3D printing exhibitors at this year’s show continues a stark downward trend of the last several years, with 3D printing vendors from incumbents to new-entrants moving away from entertaining consumers and toward catering for professionals. This year’s showing of consumer 3D printing shows us what the end of a hype cycle looks like. Consumer 3D printing is dead; the next decade belongs to the rise of industrial additive manufacturing.
So, in memoriam, I’d like to recap the 10-year story of the rise and fall of consumer 3D printing, as documented by the last decade of CES shows.
Pre 2009 – Setting the stage
3D printing has been around since the 80’s in the form of large, expensive systems geared towards prototyping, but with the expiration of patents and a drop in hardware prices, enthusiasts began to engineer rudimentary desktop 3D printers in the early 2000’s. The most noteworthy of these was the RepRap project led by Adrian Bowyer, Senior Lecturer of Mechanical Engineering at Bath University in England. The RepRap project aimed to design a fully open-source $400 3D printer that could print the majority of its own components. Bowyer would later be known as the “father of desktop 3D printing,” and his RepRap movement inspired many, but in particular three New Yorkers who would build off the spirit (and engineering) of RepRap to form Makerbot.
2009 – The hype cycle begins
Most industry observers would agree the founding of Makerbot in 2009 by Bre Petis, Adam Mayer, and Zach "Hoeken" Smith and its inaugural attendance at CES 2011 marked the beginning of the hype cycle for consumer 3D printing. Those early plywood-clad 3D printers spurred an explosion of attention and expectation from the media, with the likes of Wired magazine, The Economist, CNN, and Harvard Business Review all agreeing that by the end of the decade, desktop 3D printers will be as prevalent as microwave ovens. Consumers would no longer buy products, but rather make them at home with their 3D printer.
Photo, right: Adam Mayer, Zach "Hoeken" Smith, and Bre Petis, founders of Makerbot
2009 – 2013 – The gold rush
This short-lived epoch is where the majority of the most recognizable desktop printer brands emerged: The MIT spin-out Formlabs. The Dutch company Ultimaker. The RepRap inspired printers from Prusa Research. Even 3D Systems, an incumbent in this industry, developed their own consumer entry level range called The Cube. At the height of this gold rush, Makerbot, the face of consumer 3D printing, was acquired by another incumbent, Stratasys, for a price of $400 million. At CES 2013, the “consumer 3D printing” fever dream translated as spot light media attention and sweeping awards for 3D printing exhibitors, with one of the most coveted awards “best emerging technology” going to 3D Systems and their CubeX printer.
2014 – Jumping the shark
Approaching the middle of the decade, consumer 3D printing began to hit its peak, with 3D printers breaking into pop culture from TV shows to music videos to mainstream tech talk. This increase in hype, exposure, and variety of vendors and products failed to generate growth in demand for printers by the intended consumers. 3D Systems arguably had the most well-oiled go-to-market: a printer with ease-of-use in mind, a growing product line, a highly curated catalog of printable products designed by an internationally recognized design firm and a war chest of money to pour into marketing and promotion. Having done everything right, 3D Systems decided to do something absurd; They announced at CES 2014 that Will.I.Am would be their Chief Creative Officer, a Hail Mary attempt to brute-force this technology into the broader consumer market. Even this combination of product strategy and star power was not enough. Desktop printers were selling, just not to the intended customers, and not at the right scale.
Image, right: The Cube3 3D printer from 3D Systems
2015 - The bubble bursts
As we reached the middle of the decade, we also passed the height of inflated expectations. Half a decade of product advancement, promotion, and media attention, and billions of dollars of venture capital was insufficient—consumer 3D printers never leapt the chasm from early adopters to the mainstream market. The incumbents took drastic action to stem the loss and recoup both money and credibility. 3D Systems abruptly shut down their Cube line of entry-level printers and Stratasys wrote down the value of Makerbot by $180 million, nearly 50% of its acquisition price. The bubble had burst.
2015 - 2018 – Going niche
Even with the two heavy-hitters of the 3D printing industry running away from consumer 3D printing, new desktop printer start-ups continued to pour into the space unabated. CES 2016 boasted over 50 3D printing exhibitors across a 100,000 sq. ft. of floor space. These new entrants brought little innovation to the market, instead looking to compete on price, triggering a race to the bottom. This downward price pressure alongside a dwindling number of consumers wanting 3D printers in their homes prompted the original desktop 3D printer start-ups to alter strategy, pivoting away from consumers and towards finding a professional niche. Formlabs focused on materials for engineering applications, then bio-compatible materials for dental applications. Ultimaker reformed itself from the open-source printer of choice to a reliable and repeatable tool for demanding engineering departments. Makerbot went after education, academia, and STEM initiatives. Many of the original class of 2009 to 2013 successfully jettisoned the notion of consumers wanting to buy 3D printers and focused on professional niche applications Consequently, all of these vendors are going strong to this day.
2019 - Made in China
Not just at CES 2019, but at every major 3D printing tradeshow in the couple years leading up to it, the most recognizable change to the landscape had been the rapid expansion in the number of vendors from the Asian-Pacific region. These vendors such as UnionTech and TierTime had historically focused on catering to their domestic markets. But as the technology had become more accessible, helped along with several government-led strategies across the Asia-pacific region to support AM market growth such as the “Made in China 2025” initiative, there came an explosion of new entrants releasing printers ranging from industrial systems to primarily low-cost, low-grade desktop 3D printers. This flood of so many new, similar looking products boasting demonstrably false claims of quality, capability, and reliability that could compare to high-end industrial systems, made it that much more difficult for vendors to differentiate their products and for consumers (a small and shrinking market) to single out a quality, easy to use printer.
2020 – Disappointing ends, promising beginnings
We can safely say after 10 years of trying, the vision of consumers 3D printing products in their homes is dead. CES 2020 confirmed this for me, with 3D printing occupying a drab side-lined space hosting a handful of small, copy-cat Asian vendors. There is indeed a place for low-cost entry-level 3D printers and it’s on the desks of engineers and in the offices of start-ups, not on the dining tables of regular folk.
Why did consumer 3D printing die? For 70 years we have lived in a consumerist society where we are programmed to buy rather than make. Reversing this ethos is a generational undertaking. Virtually all the products we buy are complex assemblies of multiple materials and composites, not single blocks of plastic. But most importantly, there was never anything of value for consumers to print beyond plastic trinkets. In short-many, of the products that consumers might want to make, such as a vase, set of shoes or children’s toy could arrive by same-day delivery faster than the time it would take to print. Not until desktop printers can produce functional products under an hour on machines priced in line with typical high-end kitchen appliances will we see consumers become makers, and that degree of technological capability is many many decades away.
There is a positive outcome to this decade's long movement: Makerbot, Ultimaker, Formlabs, and their peers propelled the idea of 3D printing into the mainstream. Companies who had not heard of the technology were compelled to explore, experiment, and invest in the technology. An influx of interest and money accelerated the technology through the hype cycle, past the peak of inflated expectations, and through the trough of disillusionment far more rapidly than if the technology had remained buried in the prototyping labs of Jaguar Land Rover, or shop floor of Boeing. Thanks to the hype of consumer 3D printing, we start the next decade with a far more defined and measured understanding of precisely how, where, and for whom 3D printing can create value. It’s not in consumers’ homes, it’s in the factories their products are made, in the planes they fly, the trains they ride, and much more. This is the true legacy of Adrian Bowyer and the early desktop 3D printer founders, and we should acknowledge their contribution to getting us where we are today.
Oliver Smith, Senior Innovation Consultant
Oliver’s focus is on 3D printing strategy and innovation. He has created multiple unique innovation methodologies and tools that allows him to communicate the myriad capabilities and possibilities of 3D printing to our clients and work with them to not only apply this unique technology to innovate their products, services, business and operating models, but to form a coherent strategy for taking their ideas from concept to reality.