Had you attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas five years ago, you would have found, nestled among the tablet computers and gigantic TVs, dozens of big, glass cubes.
These retro-futuristic boxes, often accented in bright, primary colours, contained little robotic arms that swung around in three dimensions, extruding threads of molten resin. This, we were confidently told, was the beginning of the 3D printing revolution.
While the process had been around for decades in the commercial world, the technology had reached a level where it could be miniaturised and manufactured cheaply enough to reach our homes, allowing us to “print” everything from the childrens Christmas presents to busts of our own heads.
Dozens of companies were backing the nascent market, including MakerBot, XYZprinting, Ultimaker and Formlabs. There was something irresistible about the idea of manufacturing objects from the comfort of our own homes, plucking a trope straight from science fiction and making it a bold new reality, akin to seeing a mobile phone in action for the first time.
Except the revolution never happened, with the consumer 3D printer market remaining virtually non-existent. Prohibitive pricing – often upwards of £1,000 for a half decent one – dubious quality, unwieldy size, and a steep learning curve has put off… well, just about everyone.
The Kickstarter-backed 3Doodler claims to be the worlds best-selling 3D printer (having shifted just 1.4m units), doing away with all but a handheld pen that oozes strings of plastic; even its makers couldnt produce anything more impressive than a slightly mangled origami crane (pictured). Its hardly the Starship Enterprises replicator.
“Some of the early predictions in 2012-2013 were more than a little optimistic,” says Scott Dunham, senior analyst at SmarTech Markets Publishing. “The consumer market is chugging along but its certainly not achieved what many thought it would when it hit the limelight a few years ago. Its not anywhere close to one in every house like a PC, and it probably never will be. Despite it being a digital tool, theres no way to eliminate the level of hard work and creative design it takes to make something, despite advancements in 3D scanning.”
The real innovations in 3D printing are taking place commercially, where aeronautical and aerospace industries are inevitably leading the way, using the technology to create parts that would be virtually impossible to make through traditional methods.
The healthcare and bio-medicine sectors also see benefits, with custom designed implants and patient-specific, 3D printed drugs currently in development. Adidas has also had some success using it to make trainers. Even so, the global 3D printing industry is worth a relatively paltry $6.7bn, although its expected to rise to $53bn by 2027.
So should we kiss goodbye to the idea of synthesising our shopping at the press of a button?
“It might not be revolutionising the way people buy and consume things today, but I wouldnt write it off forever,” says Dunham. “Its just the time-scale for disruption is going to be a lot longer than wed previously thought. Right now, it really takes an enthusiast-level consumer to invest the time and money, so the whole market will revolve around a dedicated group of hobbyists, akin to top cyclists who are willing to customise their bikes.”
If, however, youre in the market for a wonky origami crane, you can always head to the3doodler.com.