I recently had a conversation with one of my friends about the distribution of consumer level 3D printers. We were curious about how many unique individuals had purchased a 3D printer. How evenly distributed is the world of 3D printers? The answer to this question started me down a path that could lead to something incredibly interesting — the foundation for a global 3D printer index.
How evenly distributed is the world of 3D printers?
3D printing is a hot topic. The popular press has simultaneously heralded it as the beginning of a post scarcity utopian society and an over-hyped gimmick that will never take off. These printers can create items out of materials ranging from metals and plastic to chocolate and sand. 3D printing — whether you think it has a big future or not — is grabbing the attention of millions of people around the world.
This enthusiasm has spilled over into the tech startup scene in a big way. One of the most successful hardware startups in resent years has come out of the 3D printing space. After shipping over 20,000 printers Makerbot was purchased for $404 million in 2013 by Stratasys. Before their acquisition their success was enough to inspire several other companies to start making consumer-level 3D printers. Many of these teams launched their products on Kickstarter or other similar crowd funding platforms. Several of these projects have been wildly successful. Two of the top sixteen projects of all time on Kickstarter are 3D printers.
To answer my question about the number of unique 3D printer owners I decided to constrain myself to 3D printers that raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter. The projects had to be for complete desktop 3D printers that had already closed their campaigns by the time I scraped the data on July 10th, 2014. That left me with 31 different campaigns that collectively raised over $17M from more than 30,000 individuals. The code that I used to scrape this data, along with the raw data set, can be found on github.
If it is true that people who back a single 3D printer are backing several 3D printers you would expect a fairly high mode in the dataset. To determine this I scraped the backer information from all 31 projects using BeautifulSoup. I then counted the number of times that a unique user id appeared in the whole data set using a simple Python script. When you plot that data as a bar chart you get something that looks like this.
Somewhat surprisingly, the majority of people who back 3D printers on Kickstarter only back one 3D printer project.
On one hand this isn’t terribly surprising given the fact that 3D printers are expensive, complicated, and the majority of people don’t need more than one at a time. On the other hand, you might expect people who were enthusiastic about 3D printers to purchase more than one model given the rapid improvements that have been occurring in the past few years.
…the majority of people who back 3D printers on Kickstarter only back one 3D printer project.
In fact, there are only 110 people who have backed more than four 3D printer projects on Kickstarter. That’s an incredibly small percentage of all 3D printer backers in this dataset— just .36% of the total. Increasing that number to everyone who has backed more than one printer only gets you to 7.7% of the list. This doesn’t mean that people who are backing 3D printers are average consumers, but it at least suggests that among the most expensive and nerdy reaches of Kickstarter the overall population of backers is fairly diverse.
Once the question of how many people backed multiple projects was answered I took a second look at the data to see if there was anything interesting I had previously overlooked. Low and behold, around half of the people who backed 3D printer projects made their location public. I slowly realized that this might actually be the most interesting part of the data set. By mapping these locations with Google Fusion Tables I could create an index of cities where 3D printers are being shipped around the world.
Clearly the majority of these printers are going to the United States and Europe. These regions make up the majority of Kickstarter backers in general, so this shouldn’t be surprising. But there’s one thing that the heat map doesn’t really covey, and that’s the number of different cities with at least one 3D printer backer.
All in all, there are more than 5,000 unique cities with at least one 3D printer backer. Nine of the top 20 cities are located outside of the United States. Now, Kickstarter’s data doesn’t make it easy to break the data down by metropolitan region (note New York, NY and Brooklyn, NY appearing as separate entities), so this list is probably inaccurate on some level.
However, the city with the most individual backers is Singapore. Why Singapore? I’m not entirely sure, but the fact that their current President and Prime Minister both have STEM degrees probably says something about how much that city values technology literacy.
The city with the most individual backers is Singapore.
These numbers surprised me and made me re-think my previous ideas about the global distribution of 3D printing technology. It hasn’t conquered every household in the world, but 3D printers are much more evenly distributed than I thought it would be at first glance. The road to a future of in home manufacturing might not be as far off as we think.
From here I plan on exploring this data in more detail if there is any outside interest. What does a per-capita index look like? What’s the longest drive time to any given city with a 3D printer? How many 3D printers are there compared to libraries in these cities?
Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter if you have any questions about my methods, the raw data, or anything else contained in this piece.
Thanks to Austin Lyons, Ehsan Noursalehi, Jason Roesslein, and Lisa Torrealba for helping me with this piece.