3D Printing is Still Finding its Way
I’m going to be brutally honest here...
I’ve seen almost nothing useful done with 3D printers.
I’ve seen piles of brightly colored plastic trinkets. I’ve seen poorly designed cell phone cases, and I’ve seen ornate, impractical works of 3D-printed art.
Despite a couple of years' worth of hype and lots of tongue lolling over the possibilities of 3D printing, the technology hasn’t really bowled the market over.
Investors have grown cold on the formerly hot space.
Even though sales of 3D printers and printing materials have quadrupled over the last five years, the market’s combined value has crashed by some $14 billion since the beginning of last year.
Today, it’s looking like a $3 billion specialist-level industry.
The reason 3D printing is falling into a niche is because it still requires a degree of ingenuity most people lack.
It requires a cocktail of engineering, minor hardware expertise, solid imagination, and plenty of patience.
Most people don’t have a vision for 3D printing, and as a result, the technology hasn’t yet made an indelible mark on advanced economies.
But this is a good thing.
This means there’s been plenty of time for companies and regulators to catch up as the market matures and the idiot-proof 3D printing solution is eventually unveiled.
Companies that could handle some of the ancillary aspects of 3D printing are safely and quietly moving into the space.
This week, cloud storage company Box (NYSE: BOX) revealed that one of its new document-sharing interfaces is specifically designed for 3D design documents.
This new surface was unveiled with a few others, which all align with the company’s strategy of moving away from simple online storage. By adding support for broader types of content, Box is positioning itself as a content management service provider. 3D printing plays a part in this move.
In the start-up space, a Boston company called Onshore announced it had raised $80 million in venture funds to support its purely cloud-based 3D design software. For $100 a month, subscribers have access to the company’s CAD software that can be accessed through any browser.
The software side of 3D printing still offers a lot of upside potential.
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Meanwhile, on the physical side of things, there are dozens of different materials being used in printers.
Researchers are still working with unique materials in their 3D printers, and the market hasn’t congealed around any of them yet.
For example, NASA scientists have sent 3D-printed rocket parts into space. University of Florida researchers are using gel to print complex organic structures that could eventually lead to 3D-printed human organs.
Consumer 3D printers generally use two different types of filament material for basic print jobs, but there are more than 30 different materials available for specialized use, including water-soluble filament, electrically conductive filament, magnetic filament, and dozens of others.
In short, there's still loads of potential in the space, but it will take more time for it to come to fruition.
So while Wall Street grows increasingly uncertain about the future of the 3D printing industry, remember it’s just a technology whose time has not yet come.
For the last seven years, Tim Conneally has covered the world of mobile and wireless technology, enterprise software, network hardware, and next generation consumer technology. Tim has previously written for long-running software news outlet Betanews and for financial media powerhouse Forbes.
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