3D Printing: Not Every Hobby Turns Into the PC Industry

Despite the massive increase in hype, 3D printing's growth rate has hardly changed in recent years.
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This week, 3D printing company Stratasys purchased another 3D printing company, MakerBot, for at least $403 million worth of Stratasys shares. The move makes the newly combined company the undisputed leader in all things 3D printed, and provides a moment to reflect on how far the technology has come.

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On the one hand, 3D printing is remarkably exciting. Unlike traditional manufacturing, you don't need economies of scale. The unit cost of producing one thing is (roughly) the same as the unit cost of producing 10,000 things. On a pure capability level, you can download a design of an object from the Internet and turn it into a real object in your house (or local hackerspace). It's whoa-quotient is high and as Quartz's Christopher Mims put it, "The parallels between the personal computing revolution and the one in 3D printing are irresistible." These machines are finicky, difficult to operate, and expensive now, but just you wait! The price will come down and someone will create the Apple II of 3D printers, and away we all go into the 3D-printed future.

Here was Chris Anderson making the case in 2012 (in an article about MakerBot):

By all evidence, 3-D printing has reached its inflection point, when it moves from the sophisticated early adopters to people who just want to print something cool. Soon, probably in the next few years, the market will be ready for a mainstream 3-D printer sold by the millions at Walmart and Costco. At that point, the incredible economies of scale that an HP or Epson can bring to bear will kick in. A 3-D printer will cost $99, and everyone will be able to buy one.

Sounds exciting!

But there's another perspective. 3D printing began in big industry both as a way to prototype designs and (more recently) to manufacture parts. And viewed over the two-decade arc of the technology, the more recent hobbyist fascination with the technology hardly stands out.

Wohlers Associates put out its 18th annual report on 3D printing in May, and two pairs of numbers from its analysis really stand out. First, over the past 25 years, the compound annual growth rate of the 3D printing industry was 25.4 percent. Over the past three years -- during the ascent of 3D printing excitement -- the growth rate was 27.4 percent. All that talk, all those magazine profiles, all those segments on television, and you get.... (drumroll please)... a slightly faster growing 3D printing market than from when few people had ever heard of 3D printing. 

For comparison, at least according to my calculation from this research, the PC industry had a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent from 1980 to 1989. And by the end of that period, companies were shipping 21 million units per annum. MakerBot's sales are probably still best counted in the thousands.

Second, while the hobbyist category exploded, growing an average of 346 percent per year from 2008 to 2011. In 2012, the growth slowed to an estimated 46 percent.

None of these stats show that 3D printing is not a going concern, but they do show that there isn't a clear relationship between the amount of people *talking about* 3D printing and the growth of the 3D market. They also show that the PC industry analogy is still aspirational. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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