2012/04/29

3D Printing: Young Printers, Razors and Blades

Ran across another mainstream media article about 3D printing today. This one was in Businessweek and had two concepts that I feel represent huge opportunities in the additive manufacturing world:
  • Youths growing up with 3D printers as a not-so-amazing fact of life
  • 'Razors and blades' business model
The article starts out by describing a group of teenagers who have already accepted 3D printing as a cool part of their lives.
"...14-year-old Riley Lewis and a few of his eighth grade friends gather at his house in Santa Clara, Calif. The group of five, depending on who's around, grab some chips and bean dip and repair to the garage, where Riley and his dad have created something of a state-of-the-art manufacturing hub. The boys can pretty much fabricate anything they can dream up on a machine called the RapMan. As the hours tick by, they cover tables with their creations: rockets and guitar picks and cutlery. They hold forth on plastic extrusion rates and thermodynamics and how such forces affect the precision of the objects they can produce. "That's a very beautiful gear you have printed," a boy named Douglas tells Riley...Vernon says, "I want to print an essay for one of my teachers and hand it in on sheets of plastic instead of paper just to confuse people." Riley and his friends have accepted as a mundane fact that computer designs can be passed among friends, altered at will, and then brought to life by microwave oven-sized machines..."
Those teenagers and their acceptance of 3D printing as cool-but-not-beyond-them remind me of the preschool son of a fellow DHMN member (Distributed Hacker/Maker Network). At a recent 'make' session, the son said he wanted a 3D printer for his birthday, and he also wants to take his dad's 3D printer to preschool. 

Because teenagers can dedicate a lot of time to subjects they find interesting and because they are much more open to trying new things and using 3D printers for just about anything under the sun, I predict we're going to see some amazing developments in 3D printing over the next five to ten years from the youth growing up with these mini replicators and factories in their homes, in nearby hacker/makerspaces, and even at nearby FedEx Office locations. Those kids will be designing fantastic products and taking the art and science of 3D printing down paths no one can easily predict.

The Businessweek article also talks about the shift at 3D Systems from being primarily being a seller of 3D printers to having a majority of their sales generated by the printing compounds used in their printers. As a chemical engineer, I've always been interested in the different compounds you can use in 3D printers and can envision many different properties being designed into printer feed materials. However, I would never have guessed that one of the leading 3D printer manufacturers had already moved to the razors and blades business model.
"...Reichental, 55, arrived at 3D Systems eight years ago...He says 70 percent of 3D Systems' revenue today comes from recurring sales of materials, up from 10 percent when Reichental took over. Last year the company's annual revenue rose 44 percent, to $230.4 million..."
It's unlikely 3D Systems has fully embraced the razors and blades business model definition in Wikipedia, which says, "...one item is sold at a low price (or given away for free) in order to increase sales of a complementary good, such as supplies..." since they likely make a reasonable profit margin on their printers. In the next decade, though, it's likely that home 3D printers will drop down to the $199 price point, or even $99, just so the plastic and other printing compounds can be sold to the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of 3D printer owners. Industrial quality printers, with larger build capabilities, finer resolutions, more simultaneous print heads, and a wider range of print compounds, will always be significantly more expensive than home models. Innovation and volume production, however, will likely mean that people who launch a 'personal advanced manufacturing' business five years from now will be able to buy for less than $5000 a 3D printer that today costs $50,000 - $250,000.

What do you want to print today!?

*****

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