3D Printing is Dead (for the Average Consumer)

For this week’s Designlab UX Academy assignment, we’ve been tasked to learn from failure. Today’s topic: 3D printers for the common man.

About 5 years ago, the first consumer-grade 3D printing systems hit the market. Many hailed this introduction as the beginning to a future of ubiquitous 3D printer ownership, even going so far as to say that 3D printing would be the start of the Third Industrial revolution [1]. The average user would be able to print consumer products in the comfort of their own homes, with the ease of using their old-fashioned 2D printer. These predictions never materialized.

While 3D printing itself is arguably not a failure and will continue to grow in commercial, medical and educational applications, the goal to create a consumer-grade 3D printer was never truly able to get off the ground. What went wrong with 3D printers for home use? Let’s explore the problems and the faulty assumptions that lead to them.

Problem №1: the product is expensive. Home 3D printers are priced quite prohibitively for most users to seriously consider. Manufacturers of 3D printers for consumers made the assumption that continued innovation and increased adoption would bring down costs, therefore allowing a broader audience access to purchase. All of this would have continued the innovation and reduction in price cycle until ownership was ubiquitous. This never came to pass and the technology remained expensive and imperfect.

This Makerbot Replicator 3D printer is about $2,500

Problem №2: The machines are quite difficult to use, even for some of the most tech savvy owners. Because 3D printers are not easy to use or intuitive, this serves as a barrier to access. Manufacturers made the faulty assumption that users could handle the complicated operation of 3D printers. Or perhaps, the faulty assumption was that the consumer threshold for difficulty and patience with complex ease of use was higher. Regardless, these assumptions lead to the next problem.

Problem №3: an expensive machine that was too complex is essentially only good for novelty items. Because 3D printers are so expensive and so difficult to use, they remained the play thing of the few. The Third Industrial Revolution that many foresaw never came to be. Manufacturer’s over-estimated consumers love for DIY and that assumption resulted in a product that did not really solve a need. Sure, with enough dedication, the owner of a 3D printer would be able to manufacture various items that they needed for their every day lives in the comfort of their own homes. But as our love for eating out attests to, sometimes consumers just want something made for them.

Problem №4: For those that were able to design easier to use 3D printers or cut the cost of manufacturing, these changes often lead to cutting corners in quality. Manufacturers assumed if they could just introduce a model that was more attractively priced or simpler to operate, the technology might stand a chance. Again, the end result was that 3D printers were reduced to expensive and lackluster-functioning toys, not a life-changing product.

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