About five years 3D printing was new and very buzzworthy. The early adopters got in and purchased $1,000+ models. Since then the market (and industry) has seemed to diverge. Manufacturers are manufacturing more for the industrial and commercial sectors, and consumer interest for what’s essentially a cool $1,000+ printer has waned. Were 3D printers never really intended to be a mass-market device? Is this the direction 3D printing will head in for the considerable future?
The questions people should ask themselves about home 3D printing is this:
If you do this with other products, you can see why only hobbyists stick with 3D printing, and everyone doesn't have one, and use one regularly.
For instance, with a sewing machine and serger, ANYONE can be their own tailor, make their own clothes that fit better, or quilts or fabric animals, or upholstery, etc. All in their preferred colors and fabrics. And some people, who enjoy the activity, do exactly that. Far more people find no joy in the idea of learning and mastering how to sew, or in doing the sewing if they have already learned. Quilters and tailors who love the activity will invest a lot of money in high end machines, dedicate space for the activity full time, and have a huge inventory of fabrics and thread. But most people would rather use that space and money for other things. So most people either buy clothing, quilts and toys from a retailer, and if they need something altered, they take those few items to a tailor or alterations shop.
Similarly, there are many items around your house, such as furniture or architectural details which ANYONE could make out of a combination of wood and metal. Many hobbyists love wood or metal working as a hobby and have garages or basements full of such equipment that they use regularly. They keep on hand inventory of various types of wood, and metal for any project that occurs to them. Their gear and inventories can run thousands of dollars, and require lots of maintenance. But again, while ANYONE could use such gear to make what they want, non-hobbyists don't want to make that investment in time, money and effort. Instead, they buy off the shelf items or hire a carpenter, cabinetmaker, or metal worker for the few special projects they want.
All new technology products go through the "Hype cycle". When the product is new, no one is certain what it can do, or who and how many people will want it. Every example of someone doing something new with it is noteworthy, and companies promote these results and journalist sell many stories by talking about the future possibilities and potentialities, using a few success cases as examples. Little attention is paid to all the other ways the same results could be accomplished, and it isn't newsworthy to talk about what it can't do or can't do well yet, because most people don't yet know that it does anything. This creates the Peak of Inflated Expectations which inevitably ends with pundits predicting that some day EVERYONE will be doing EVERYTHING with some descendant of the current technology. Then everyone is excited and waiting for it to change their lives. Early adopters rush to check it out. They have fun initially. Ultimately, they find out there are only a few things it does better than the alternative, and they stop focussing on possibilities and potentialities and start focussing on what is reality today. Then the Trough of Disillusionment sets in, as all the people who hoped for one of the results that didn't pan out discover their problem still remains unsolved. But for the people who have problems the new technology does make better, this becomes a useful tool and the Slope of Enlightenment begins. After the new technology is ubiquitous for all those who need it (and is forgotten by everyone else) the Plateau of Productivity lasts until the next innovation that replaces the last one.
It's not just having a 3D printer, there's the associated learning curve of 3D modelling/design software. It's all well and good being able to print something, but it's all about content. There are now lots of sites offering downloads, but much of it you could probably buy cheaper as it's made using traditional methods. So they hype of 3D printing isn't the printers it's the software. However as the technology costs decrease, why wouldn't you have a 3D printer ...
The problem 3D printing faced is the hype cycle. To explain what 3D printing was going to be like, someone started talking about the StarTrek replicator. That sounded like something every consumer would want. But really, people don't want any device, they want an experience. And the experience people associated with the Star Trek replicator is that you come up to it, say what you want, wait two seconds, and out it comes, and the user doesn't need to know anything. Because StarTrek is TV, there's always a replicator just large enough to make the thing they need in this episode, and it is always conveniently located in just the right place in the show. Now someone says a 3D printer is like a replicator - it can make anything. Well, theoretically 3D printers can, but in reality, there are different printing technologies for different materials, So you can't get by with just one machine, you need several, and in different sizes too. But unlike Star Trek you need to dedicate space in your house for all of them. Also, instead of just saying what you want and out it comes, you actually have to program and control the 3D printer. And prints could take hours. The thing is, a home machine shop could probably make whatever you want too. But it still won't be just a few seconds, and there where be a lot to learn and master. If that isn't your passion, it is so much easier to use a service bureau.
The best analogy I can give is 3d printers are at the IBM 286 stage, good for businesses that need it and can afford it. But a Sinclair or commodore computer for hobbyist. As quality, speed, and cost come down it will no doubt be adapted more and more just like the computer, cellphone, laser printers, etc..
(For those that don't know the first viable desktop computer for small businesses was the IBM XT https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Personal_Computer_XT , for hobbyist it was the Apple, but the Commador and Sinclair were much cheaper.)
One issue with consumer 3D printers is that they're a "prosumer" (professional consumer) product that, because of the media hype, have been marketed to consumers. Prosumer products require users with skillsets. Besides lacking those skillsets, many consumers think that they're as easy to use as modern-day printers when in fact they're more akin to first-generation printers that needed a lot of tweaking and cleaning to work properly.
With that said consumer 3D printing has enormous benefits, especially considering education and entrepreneurism. Just as low-cost PC's opened a world of programming and innovation to the masses, sub-$300 consumer 3D printing kits have sparked a revolution in robotics and material sciences. And just as with those early printers that needed lots of tweaking, quantity of scale with consumer 3D printing will lead to plug-and-play 3D printers flush with usable applications.
The key element is the skill required to use the printers - both for the actual print process (thermo plastics have interesting characteristics) and for the functional aspects of what you can print. There are serious limits today with the functionality inherent in a single-material process, which is what consumer grade $1k US will get you, and serious limits to the dimensional tolerances. Those limits, combined with a lack of generalized CAD design experience (and tools) means most folks who purchased a 3D printer wont be able to practically use them.
MakerBot attempted to resolve this issue with their website thingiverse, and others have followed with similar online 3D model databases which provide pre-designed items for fabrication along with instructions and forums, but the economics of designing functional items and giving away the designs has not yet evolved into a sustainable market.
In some respects, 3D printing resembles the Open Source Software movement between the time of RMS's original work, and the early 90s ramp-up of Linux and related software. The inexpensive tools exist (3D printer is like GCC) but there's no broader economy of proven and adopted use-cases.
On the other hand, the company ShapeWays, which offer very high quality and extended materials capabilities in a service-bureau style paid-for-printing operation with attendant "artist royalties" for fabrication of functional and decorative items, appears to have a somewhat successful model.
The really exciting developments actually are in the military arena, which just like their early adopter status in computers and networking, is starting to use 3D printers in an arena where economically they can drive performance and skills - in-field parts replacement.
Ultimately 3D printers are following the well known "Gartner Hype Cycle" and we're just header into the "Trough of Disillusionment" - this technology will come back sooner or later to the consumer market, but only after the skills and per-system performance (materials technology mostly) reaches maturity.
Yes. Consumer-level 3D printers are garbage. They produce poor quality parts, are incapable of printing fine detail (which you'd need for things like kids' toys, which would be the biggest market), and they suffer from requiring support structures that are a pain to remove, and the parts need a lot of manual finishing.
I've been using 3D printing a lot, for many years, and I exclusively use 3D printing services, like Shapeways that have industrial 3D printers (laser sintering, metal printing etc.).
The gap between consumer-level and industrial 3D printers in the quality of the output, is like bicycles vs fighter jets.
Nearly every part for our advanced humanoid robot is 3D printed.
Yet, we don't own a consumer-grade 3D printer! After seeing the quality, I never even bothered to try one.
That should tell you something.
Also, only a tiny fraction of the population has 3D design skills, so what are you going to 3D print?
3D printing Yoda heads, made by other designers, gets old really fast.
Also, the usability, consumer 3D printers are terrible, and prints take forever.
Combine that with their unreliability, and you end up re-doing prints that take half a day, several times.
A Zen master doesn't have that kind of patience.
HP's new, much faster industrial 3D printer might change that, but it will be a while before they will have that tech at consumer price levels, if ever.
I see many interesting answers here . Having owning a couple of home 3-d printers , there my thoughts. Some of the answers are from the perspective of commercial users. Its like comparing the inkjet printers with offset printing its a different class and i will not go there. I agree to Scott that its in the hobbyist space today . Also unlike paper printing i doubt if anyone of us today has actual needs to print something on demand at home. Well things may change in future . Today the tools are really not very intutitve and it take a long time before you realized you may have messed up your model. I donot see a mass market appeal for 3d printers in immediate future.