Commercial 3D printers have been aimed at corporate and professional users since their invention in the late 80’s. Like any other semiconductor-based technology, price/performance has improved over the years. For a given build chamber size, prices are now approximately one quarter of what they were in 2004 but these systems are still out of reach for anyone but commercial users.
This changed in 2005 when Dr Adrian Bowyer started a project at the University of Bath to create a “Self Replicating Prototyper.” The project was called “RepRap” and used a process called “Fused Filament Fabrication” to avoid a trademark dispute over the use of FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling). FFF is a similar approach and relied on that fact that certain key Stratasys patents had expired. These machines were (and remain) open source systems that relied on crowd sourced hardware and software.
The RepRap project developed four different models that cost as little as $350 in kit form. There are now at least 25 different suppliers of kits or systems, including fully assembled models. Some have branched off into proprietary hardware or software in an effort to create intellectual property or differentiate themselves. They top out in price at around $3,500.
The Proactive 3D Printer Consumer
With the least expensive professional models costing $10,000 or more, here comes the “Prosumer market.” Prosumer is a term coined by Alan Toeffler in 1980 as a contraction of “Proactive” and “Consumer” to mean someone who actively participates in the design and improvement of a product they use. It has since taken on multiple meanings first as “Professional Consumer” (notably in the camcorder and digital camera market) or someone who desires or requires product features of professionals while using the product personally. The term has since been used in a third way: “Producing Consumers” or those who are actively customizing mass-produced goods for their own needs.
From a marketplace perspective, system marketers are trying to fill the gap between the $2,500 “maker” systems and the $10,000 and up commercial systems. One obvious candidate is MakerBot, recently acquired by Stratasys in a stock deal. Using Stratasys extruder, software, and build chamber technology, MakerBot could potentially provide a system in this price rang that would be sold directly by the manufacturer.
While most of the systems on the market are based on FDM technology, there are others. Form One is a Cambridge, MA based startup building a $3,500 system based on UV cured photopolymer. These systems have only recently started shipping so there isn’t much user feedback as yet. In addition, 3D Systems has filed a lawsuit against them alleging patent infringement. No matter the outcome, others will attempt to fill this market segment.
The Maturing Marketplace
Currently there are almost no systems available in the price range from $2,500 to $10,000. Don’t expect this vacuum to remain for very long. Whether these newly offered prosumer systems will be commercially successful is another question entirely. They may prove too expensive for consumers while proving too slow or having properties insufficient for commercial use. But there will be new such entries, without question.