Continual improvements in 3D printing have made it increasingly apparent that the future of manufacturing may bear little resemblance to its past. However, the particular shape of that future is still being formed. I've already covered 3D Systems (NYS: DDD) and its push for widespread consumer adoption. Another business model is already in place today: companies with know-how and a high-end printer, selling customized widgets.
Both could be tremendously successful, but neither has fully caught on with the masses. The technology hasn't yet reached a tipping point towards broader adoption. How much better does 3D printing need to be to transform manufacturing as we know it?
Like many other technology platforms, 3D printers have undergone incredible improvements over the past decade. To find out just how much has changed, I decided to compare the best Stratasys (NAS: SSYS) model of a decade ago to the 3D Systems Cube, the first machine marketed towards neophytes:
3D Systems Cube
|Introduced||November 2000||January 2012|
|Accuracy||0.127 mm||0.125 mm|
|Max Print Size||600 x 500 x 600 mm||140 x 140 x 140 mm|
|Machine Size||6.5 feet tall, 2500 pounds||Desktop size, nine pounds|
Sources: Archived Stratasys website (Wayback Machine) and Cubify.com. * Cost adjusted for inflation.
The Cube manages to keep accuracy on par with the best machine of 2002 while costing just 1/240 the price. Stratasys' top model today costs $380,000, but its accuracy tops out at 0.089 mm, just less than twice as precise as the Cube. Its major advantage is its large capacity and the ability to use multiple materials, areas where the Cube is limited. This isn't trivial: Multi-material capabilities will be essential to broader adoption, and a cubic working area less than six inches to a side significantly restricts what can be made.
How might adoption take place, and what will it take to get there? Let's look at both scenarios.
A 3D printer in every home?
Unless you're one of the resourcefully technical sorts with a lot of experience in 3D modeling, you probably aren't even sure what you'd do with a new 3D printer. 3D Systems hopes to overcome that barrier with ease-of-use apps and premade designs on Cubify.com, companion site to the Cube. Microsoft's (NAS: MSFT) Kinect provides one way to simplify things, but it may not be enough by itself to initiate the widespread adoption of in-home 3D printing.
You don't need design talent to print to paper. Most flat printing is straightforward, like copying that chowder recipe off the Internet, or tweaking your newest resume. But step into a 3D design program and things can get complicated quickly. A Kinect and ease-of-use apps can lower the entry barriers, but the creative and technical skills to make full use of the medium remain beyond the reach of many.
No "killer app"
Even leaving off the extra complexity, why would most people even need a 3D printer in their home? I walked through my house to find something would make more sense to print in 3D than to buy, but came up with nothing. I can't print clothes. I don't need new cups and bowls every month. I certainly don't need cheap plastic dinnerware when I can buy a perfectly nice ceramic set for the cost of a single Cube 3D print cartridge.
MakerBot Industries, a low-cost 3-D printer startup, notes that you can "make shower curtain rings, bath plugs, [and] door knobs" with its printer. Seriously. Because nothing justifies the purchase of a $1,750 toy like making your own bath plugs.
But what if I decide that I want unique flooring that can't be found at Home Depot (NYS: HD) ? Now we're getting somewhere.
Make it on the spot at a different spot
Most may not need to make their own stuff more than once or twice a year. But offer the chance to put a unique spin on basic objects made of plastic, glass, metal, ceramic, and even chocolate, and millions will line up over that same time frame. Private companies like Shapeways already offer outsourced -D printing services, a model 3D Systems is moving toward with Cubify.com.
Printing in 3D is good enough today to create hearing aids and replacement joints for delicate humans. There's no reason the technology can't take a prominent place in home improvement warehouses to, say, print customized flooring or ensure there are enough snow shovels before a blizzard. The only restrictions are material cost and printable size. Instead of shrinking, 3D printers should be getting bigger and more efficient. A six-foot tall printer should be able to craft something that's not much smaller than its own footprint.
If you build it
Home Depot and Lowe's (NYS: LOW) already seem ideally suited for 3D printing. Many things handy folks need are simply made and have straightforward designs, so they're easily customized or otherwise replicated on site. There will be plenty of other ways to bring 3D printing to retail environments, especially once multiple materials can be easily manipulated within the same object. I'd give Stratasys the advantage in the retail space, as that company seems more focused on the bleeding edge of quality.
I'm not the only one advocating scaled-up 3D printing, either. Several teams have been working on construction-scale printing contraptions in recent years, with the hopes that they will eventually create entire buildings. One even aims to print buildings on the moon. If 3D printing can go into space, why not into the mall? It's a lot closer, and probably a good deal more profitable. The machines seem to be capable of necessary scale and precision and have by now successfully utilized a broad range of materials. The larger obstacles are strategy and software, and there's no reason both can't be updated.
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At the time this article was published Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Lowe's Companies, The Home Depot, Microsoft, 3D Systems, and Stratasys. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended writing covered calls in Lowe's Companies. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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