Is 3D Printing Niche?

One of the more exciting fields in 3D printing is in the world of composites. Companies like MarkForged are particularly interesting because of their seemingly niche target. It is not the niche that is so interesting but the approach to their business. Paradoxically, for 3D printers to become more generally utilized there needs to be a more narrow focus among 3D printer manufacturers. This is because most 3D printers disappoint their audience. If you look at the industries who are early adopters of 3D printing, they were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for these thousand dollar machines because they had real problems they were trying to solve. Instead we are selling thousand dollar machines that don’t solve any problem. So price competition among manufacturers becomes fierce because it is effectively the only to convince people to buy. People say it is a race to the bottom but rather is is a race to gadgetize 3D printing.

Therefore it is better for a 3D printing company to ask, “what problem does our 3D printer solve?” Only super villains and politicians can start with a solution then manufacture a problem. I expect that we will see a wave of these companies and printers within a year or two.

In the short-term, the sweet spot for all additive manufacturing will be low production volume with high geometrical complexity. Prime examples are the medical fields of orthotics, prosthetics and hearing aids, applications that work best when customized for the user. “Here is where “D printing makes sense as a manufacturing process,” MarkForged creative director Jeff Klein asserts, “allowing you to tailor each part to the individual, without a cost or time penalty. And it’s a vast improvement over where the market is today.” He adds that his company’s Markone printer can be used to reinforce orthotic shoe inserts, for example, in dynamic ways: “We might lay fiber in the arch or part of the heel or at 45° in certain areas to correct the heel strike or a gait issue.” He contrasts this to how these devices have been made for the past 40 years, where measurements are taken, then a cast is made from the body part and sent out for hand-lamination and production. He concludes, “After thousands of dollars and 3-4 weeks, the device might be ready.” In contrast, Klein claims 3D printed composites not only reduce cost, “but I can pick up my orthotic inserts in the same week that I ordered them.”

3D printing is good at prototyping, but I think everyone knows that at this point. The interesting thing is how these companies are moving their marketing towards showing how their printers can drastically effect traditional markets. Similar in price and focus on specialization, Voxel8 is trying to solve real problems for traditional industries, evidenced by the fact they are hiring an intern to do just that.

So it seems clear that shortly we will experience a wave of specialized 3D printers but rather than making 3D printing more niche it will be a boon for general 3D printing as effective 3D printers are used to overcome specific problems.