back to article 3D printers set for lift off? Yes, yes, yes... at some point in the future

3D printing is still perched on the edge of greatness, industry types insist, but sales are not yet matching the marketing bluster. The latest stats in the shipment stakes arrived on our desks today from the number-crunchers at Context - units sales went up 19 per cent year-on-year in Q4 to 73,012 machines. Some 96 per cent …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pick a number, any number...

    Context forecast that the 3D printer market - hardware, materials and services - would grow from $4.1bn in 2015 to $16.2bn by 2020.

    That's a pretty heroic estimate based on extrapolating a current 33% annualised growth in shipments for the next 5 years. I wonder if there's any more science behind it than that?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "3D printers set for lift off? Yes, yes, yes... at some point in the future" -- good, I can use them to print parts for my flying car.

  3. My-Handle

    Consumer device?

    I'd be the first to admit that I like the idea of designing and building stuff, but when you're pricing a unit at multi-thousands of pounds / dollars, you're not really looking at a typical desktop product anymore. Even for hobbyists, machining tools like lathes and mills are priced in the hundreds of pounds range. It is likely easier to acquire the skill to use these kinds of tools than it would be to gain the kind of disposable income to buy a desktop 3D printer. Coupled with the fact that these devices are fairly limited in the materials they can actually print with (usually thermoplastics), they probably don't make much financial sense outside of businesses with rapid prototyping needs and the 'cool' factor isn't really enough to justify the price tag.

    Reduce the price of the thing and / or increase the types of materials it can work with and it'll boom right enough. Until then, it is likely to remain a niche product.

    1. Steve Todd

      Re: Consumer device?

      You need a good deal more skill, time, effort and space to use a hobbyist grade lathe or mill than you do a 3D printer, and you'll pay a lot more for your feedstock (there's a lot of wastage in the machining process).

      What may make a difference is the expiration of the key patents for Selective Laser Sintering type systems. They allow the creation of parts from powdered materials including plastics and metals, and once out of patent the machine costs should fall.

    2. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      Re: Consumer device?

      Eh? Where did you get the impression that a basic 3D printer costs any more than a basic Lathe? there are a number of models under a grand.

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        Re: Consumer device?

        Well, it's not entirely his fault - certain prominent players in the market (selling $2000-3000 machines) love to take every opportunity to spread the idea that the "average" price for a "proper" 3D printer is... drumroll... $2000-3000. Of course, those actually paying attention to the sector know perfectly well that's eminently bollocks, there's precisely zero reason to pay more than $500-800 for a printer that's essentially the exact same structure as the much more expensive ones, and if you shop around a bit, depending on your needs, that price can go still further down a lot more. For instance, here's a robust printer for $300 (for now), and another mini one for $99 (!)...

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: Consumer device?

          The problem is that "essentially the exact same structure" ISN'T actually the same. It looks the same, works the same and SHOULD behave the same. But higher quality bearings (SKF or similar), closer toleranced hardened and ground shafts and more precisely wound steppers all make for a much more accurate movement on the higher end machines. On top of that comes a lot of fine adjustment to get everything within tolerance. And if a manufacturer of "off the shelf, plug and play" printers wants to make any money being in that business what you come up with in the end run when you add all those components, assembly and the price of backend and the like is... 'drumroll'... $2000 to $3000. With the caveat that there are a lot of manufacturers selling in that price bracket that have no business selling at that price level because they don't have the product to match.

          (Note, I'm a mechanical engineer with currently no interest in building/buying my own 3D printer and no affiliation with ANY manufacturer in the rapid proto market. I also happen to think the average consumer will never want nor need a 3d printer and a lot of the current hype is exactly that. I do however work a lot with fine machanics and know from experience the difference a good quality bearing and some extra fiddling can have. I also understand the impact such fiddling will have on the final price of a product.)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If I could just pop into my local DIY store and say "How much to print this widget?", I'd be happy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      or any of the boutique printers.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I sent an email to one company that seemed to be a big name in 3D printing. Asked if they or one of their customers could scan and print a copy of one of my small sculptures. Never received a reply.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Francis Boyle Silver badge

        Try Shapeways

        They have a whole forum dedicated to just that.

  5. DrXym Silver badge

    One unlikely champion

    Mattel are producing a $300 FDM printer called a ThingMaker. FDM printers produce terrible quality objects but the price of the ThingMaker is low enough that it may break through and lead to other manufacturers following.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: One unlikely champion

      FDM can produce great quality parts. Just not in a plug and play 300 dollar machine. You'd probably need to add a zero atleast.

      1. DrXym Silver badge

        Re: One unlikely champion

        I haven't seen FDM produce anything I'd call great quality. It's fine at making some utilitarian widget but if you want something that is nicely finished or aesthetically pleasing (e.g. an ornament, jewellry etc.), then it's terrible.

        But for $300 and packaged up with idiot proof software and hardware, people might bite and spark some interest. Particularly if Mattel have sense and open it up so people can hack at it.

        The most viable 3D printer I've seen that (eventually) could lead to a consumer model comes from Mcor. It prints with paper and has an inkjet so it can print in full colour. If they can produce a consumer version they'll make a fortune. Still too expensive but very promising.

  6. Gene Cash Silver badge

    The "dot matrix" era

    3D printers are still in their "dot matrix" era of high cost and crap output. Most FDM printers are not worth the money. They have to be handheld through the print cycle lest they trash things, and the output is a low resolution stepped grainy item.

    Most people use alcohol and sanding to fix the finish of their FDM 3D prints.

    The "laser printer" equivalent are the sintering machines. They can do their thing without any help, and they produce an object you can instantly use. Some of them can even print metal. Alas, they're still priced in the 5-digit range.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: The "dot matrix" era

      3D printers are still in their "dot matrix" era of high cost and crap output.

      Good analogy. They also frequently jam the "ribbon" or head jam too.

      1. Dave Bell

        Re: The "dot matrix" era

        There's a big difference.

        People wanted to put text on paper. And it wasn't that bad as output. We're a bit spoiled for quality by the cheap modern inkjets. Getting such things as true descenders and proportional text took a while. And the computers were not that far ahead. But the pressure was there. They did something people wanted.

        What sort of world would it be if as many people wanted 3D Printers as wanted a dot-matrix printer in the early Eighties?

    2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: The "dot matrix" era

      That is a very good description/analogy!

      Let's hope we'll enter the 24-pin-NLQ phase soon... right now the printers I could afford just don't meet my standards yet. And those who do are out of my spending range. It'd be simply another hobby, an addition to all my other DIY stuff. So definitely not the kind of budget I'd allocate for something that I'd buy as a business tool.

      One of the uses would be making cowl panels for my Africa Twin - despite the crash bars those are wearing parts,sort of.

  7. Dick Pountain

    As long as people eat cornflakes we'll always need small plastic objects to go in the packet

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      First one I remember was the "Nautilus" - probably in 1958. It which would sink to the bottom of the bath - then rise again aided by the CO2 from a pinch of baking powder.

    2. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

      DP "...small plastic objects to go in the [cornflakes] packet."

      I don't think that they can wait hours for each plastic trinket to be individually 3D Printed.

      The optimal role is to use 3D Printing to speed up the Tool & Die Making process to enable injection molding to start only 2 days after concept approval.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There are interesting developments on the horizon

    My main challenge would be to get familiar with CAD packages to draw printable things, like many others I'm interested but not yet to the point that I want to buy one because I have as yet found little use for it - I tend to work in metal which is definitely not yet ready for home users.

    (on the topic of 3D, what would be the best way to get to know Blender? It seems the go-to tool of you want to make 3D images but I fear the interface and me have not found a common language :) )

    However, I came across this kickstarter which is busy making things a LOT more interesting on the plastic side of things. Clever idea, and I think it may quite possibly change the printer landscape this year.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: There are interesting developments on the horizon

      Of you want useful technical parts, forget Blender and go for something like Autodesk Fusion 360 (free for hobbyist use!) Which is actually designed for CAD/CAM. Blender is a pain to begin with and even more so you want precisely dimensioned parts.

      If you really want to do organically shaped sculptures and the like you can go with blender, but as an engineer I'd recommend learnig Fusion.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There are interesting developments on the horizon

        If you really want to do organically shaped sculptures and the like you can go with blender, but as an engineer I'd recommend learnig Fusion.

        Thanks for that. My interest is actually more in the realm of creating 3D images. For the moment, for instance, I would like to create a sphere with a segment cut out like they use when explaining the earth's composition, and add simple text to the layers so visible. For the moment, it appears I'll have to spend a good week getting used to the very basics of the Blender interface, but as an upside it appears I can then turn such an image into a full animation.

        If, however, I was after creating parts I think I'd follow your advice and use a proper CAD/CAM package as that is likely to be more directly functional and focused on creating real life objects. Despite my lack of experience with computer CAD/CAM, I did spend my youth reading tech drawings so I have a very good grip on 3D structures (I've been doing it in my head since I was about 11 :) ).

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    3D printing is also in need of reasonably priced 3D scanners - or some way of stitching together digital pictures. There have been various press releases - but have any of them fulfilled their hype?

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Have cell phones do 3D scanning, they do everything else

      This seems like something that could be added as yet another feature on cell phones. Have a small low power laser that projects a grid and maps the surface of an object as you move around it. You build up a 3D model on the display that shows the areas it has mapped and those it hasn't so you can keep moving around it (or turn it over in your hand if it is small enough) until it is fully mapped, or as close as you are able to get.

      There's probably nothing preventing this now except:

      1. hardly anyone needs it, until they do why bother?

      2. cost, until lots of people need it the cost to add it is too high

      3. regulations for lasers, it would have to be so low power and long wave that it is eye safe since you know people would use something like this on their phone on people's faces - either someone else's or their own. But I wonder, is it possible to have a laser that is eye safe?

  10. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken
  11. a_yank_lurker Silver badge


    3D printers have hyped as one of the next big thing. But they appear to be a semi-niche item for both businesses and consumers. Not everyone will need one and many others will only need their capabilities very, very infrequently. Also, will the economics of one-off production make sense for many items.

  12. goldcd

    Love the idea - just don't need it.

    Of course it's f'in awesome to be able to own a box that makes physical objects appear in it.

    Just there's two problems with this if you want it to be anything more:

    1) I don't have the requirement or the ability to design items unique to me.

    2) Even if I did, it's both cheaper and produces a more economic result for me to send the design to somebody else to print and mail to me next day.

    Bluntly, if you want a large number of high quality goods, you're not going to print them.

    If you want a small number of high quality goods, you're going to get somebody else to print them.

    If you want a small number of crappy goods - then by all means get yourself a printer, but accept it's a hobby.

    1. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

      Re: Love the idea - just don't need it.

      goldcd: "Bluntly, if you want a large number of high quality goods, you're not going to print them."


  13. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

    What I've learned from the 'How It's Made' TV series...

    Engineers don't build products. They build vast bespoke machines that stamp out a billion products a week.

    3D Printing simply cannot compete with the 'vast bespoke machines' that stamp out another product every 1.7 millisecond. 3D Printing is, and will remain, endless orders of magnitude too slow for mass production. Who wants to give up the benefits of mass production?

    But 3D Printing can certainly assist the engineers with building those 'vast bespoke machines'. That's hugely beneficial and efficient. But it's nothing to do with 'additive manufacturing' as such.

    There will, of course, be useful exceptions for unique low volume items. By definition, that's not mass production. It's niche.

    This all seems obvious, but hardly anyone seems to realize it. Too many people are 'thinking' that 3D Printing is the future of mass manufacturing.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: What I've learned from the 'How It's Made' TV series...

      "There will, of course, be useful exceptions for unique low volume items. By definition, that's not mass production. It's niche."

      True, but there is currently a huge chasm between "mass produced and cheap but only barely suitable for the role" and "bespoke and expensive but ideal for the task". 3D printing may provide a third point on that continuum, or even several depending on the technology you want to use. Even the materials may not be a restriction if you can 3D-print the tooling for some other process.

      At the moment, I can't see any of the above being interesting to hobbyists, but I'm not one of these people myself so perhaps I'm just ignorant.

      1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

        Bear in mind that a niche product is not the same as a niche industry. As an example: I'm currently designing a USB controller for an azimuth thruster. A niche of a niche and there's probably a few hundred people in the world who'd be interested in such a thing which is nowhere near going to pay the tooling costs for injection molding. On the other hand it probably enough to pay a competent person to design the thing using a combination off the shelf parts and domain specific 3D-printed parts while still selling it at a non-silly price. Now multiply by N where N is an unknown but likely substantial number. At the field is populated by tinkerers like me but I smell a business opportunity.

        1. lglethal Silver badge

          Keep in mind not all industries need large volume

          3D Printing will never come close to replacing mass production, but for low volume operations it "can" be more cost effective. And low volume doesn't necessarily mean "niche industry". Aircraft are only produced in lots of hundreds to thousands. If you have a single part that is expensive to manufacture for an aircraft by traditional methods then producing this by 3D Printing might be cheaper. The Space industry is another which can benefit hugely from 3D Printing.

          3D print parts can be far more effective/efficient then many traditional parts, because you can build in a single part things which would take multiple parts in traditional manufacturing (think internal cooling channels, etc.). However, the technology is not really there yet except for on a very limited number of parts. The time for production of metallic 3D parts is still too high, and the cost/part analysis really only works on extremely short volume runs at the moment. 3D metallic parts also require significant amounts of post work machining (surface finishes, hole punching, thread tapping, support material removal, etc), so they will never replace the traditional workshop.

          Still the metal 3D printing industry does hold some promise, just forget about it for mass production - areas like Space, Aero, Medical and custom engineering jobs can all benefit. Auto and consumer goods - not a chance!

  14. Oengus

    Too slow and too expensive

    I had a look at an $800 (AU) 3D printer because I needed to produce some small run items. From the specification I found that to print some of the items would have taken 80+ hours (>3 days) and those items were less than 20cm on a side. I decided I could do without them and save the $800 for beer and chips.

    I would have been quite happy to pay the $800 had I been able to produce the items in a couple of hours.

    I like the concept of 3D printing but the technology is too immature, the speed too slow and value proposition too low to justify the expenditure.

  15. DropBear Silver badge

    Progress...? What progress?

    There seem to be a LOT of people admitting that current (hobby level) 3D printing is kinda crappy in all sorts of ways who then go on to say "but it's early days, this will get SO much better!". Well, um, no. It won't.

    Sure, there's some room to improve things a little here and there - novel materials or pushing the numbers a bit further - but we're pretty much up against the technology's inherent limits already (at least as far as molten filament deposition is concerned); there's nowhere left to go. It's like cars - once you get up to one or two hundred miles per hour, that's as fast as cars on roads are likely to ever get for the purposes of transporting people; no matter what you do, there will never be cars zipping around on tarmac at Mach ten.

    You'll never see molten filament going down to much smaller layer height or putting down filament much faster - these are the limitations of what can be done using this method, we've hit them. To do any better one needs inordinately powerful motors and crazy-stiff railings that can hurl mass around faster, but that will not be hobby-level (or cheap or small) technology any time soon.

    Now, what can be done with powder sintering or resin baths is a different matter - but so far both of those technologies are exceedingly rare in the hobby 3D scene and to be sure, they have their own problems. I predict that in the short run - say next 3 to 5 years - the only thing to change noticeably will be 3D printer prices...

  16. David Paul Morgan

    In a post-oil economy...

    Each neighbourhood would have its own replication units, where consumer goods could be fabricated from bio-materials, sourced locally.

    I don't see the requirement for domestic units, but on industrial and commercial business parks, it could work.

    Some raw materials could come from recycled rubbish from the Council with electricity coming from wind, solar, tide and Energy-From-Waste plants.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Id buy a 3d printer

    But the modelling software is a bit too fiddly for my tastes.

    Id like something that is intuitive and simple to pick up.

    Im sure some people here remember QOOLE for making Quake 2 maps...thats probably the easiest map editor ive ever come across.

    You could build very complex stuff with that in a 3D space. It was very precise as well.

    Something in that spirit would be epic.

    Software to "test" designs would useful as well.

    For want of a better example. Take the Raspberry Pi.

    If I wanted to make a case for it, the ability to drop in a virtual model of that device to "virtually" mount it would be extremely useful.

    I think we need a world where product manufacturers actively encourage the production of replacement components using 3d printers. I can see a market where you get the model files for replacement parts as part of your extended warranty as well as the support to assist in producing the parts.

    Problem is, the likes of HP et al make a lot of money selling "maintenance kits".

  18. HKmk23

    I think

    3d printing is currently at the "Commodore PET" point of evolution. When I can order something from Amazon and a fridge sized box in the garage makes it in 20 minutes....3d printing will have arrived.

    Say in 2021?

  19. Fogcat

    I don't own a 3D printer but a work colleague did and I used SketchUp to design a skeleton frame for an aquarium hood which he printed for me for the cost of materials. It did require breaking my design into "kit parts" because of the size limitation and then doing an "Airfix" assembly after. There was some, sanding, filing and cleaning up and spray painting required but I was very pleased with the result. far neater that my limited carpentry skills would have allowed.

    Having said that I haven't since had the "need" to 3D print anything else.

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