3D printers poised to grow dramatically – so who is buying them?

The market for 3D printers will explode over the next few years, as we’ve reported over the last year. But who exactly are these new customers? Manufacturing? Medical? Factories? Schools? Families? The answer is yes to all of the above.


I recently visited the local public library and to my surprise, they also had a 3D printer on the premises. For a small fee, users can 3D print objects such as key chains, bracelets and other items. As explained by their director Rose Vespa (Director of Library Services), “We are very excited about having a 3D printer available at Central Library.  The printer will allow users to become familiar with emerging technologies and to develop digital literacy skills.” The 3D printers are part the Maker Mississauga program by the Mississauga Library System. This innovative initiative provides library users with access to new technologies such as a 3D printer and other specialized tools and equipment to create, build and develop things. The goal of the project is to encourage users to work together and learn new skills.

The Mississauga Library is not alone. According to research firm Gartner, the shipment of 3D printers worldwide is about to grow rapidly, and reach more than 2,170,000 units in 2015. Its forecast predicts that 3D printer shipments will double annually for the next four years. According to Gartner, seven technologies constitute the 3D printer market, with material extrusion leading the market’s growth through 2018 due to significant worldwide consumer adoption of 3D printers costing less than $1,000. The primary market drivers for “consumer” 3D printers are lower prices, improved performance and expanded global availability. The primary “enterprise” 3D printer market drivers are the viability of 3D printing technologies for prototyping and manufacturing coupled with lower 3D printer costs, improved quality and a wider range of materials.


Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner and lead analyst for its forecast on 3D printing, points first to heavy manufacturers in the automobile, aerospace, and consumer-good industries. Historically, 3D printers have been used for research and development in these industries, especially for making prototypes. In the medical field, 3D printers offer a cheaper way to produce devices requiring mass customization, such as hearing aids. But of the millions of 3D printer shipments expected for 2018, almost 80% will be “sold mainly to consumers,” says Mr. Basiliere. He considers consumer-grade printers to be anything sold for less than $2,500, as opposed to the more expensive industrial 3D printers used by heavy manufacturers.


Many manufacturers are at an early stage of discovering the benefits of 3D printing, but one of the clearest strengths is customization. In New York, 3D printed earphone manufacturer Normal (www.nrml.com), allows consumers to use a mobile app to photograph their ear, transmit the shots to the New York startup’s 3D printing facility and then receive customized earphones within 48 hours. These earphones don’t fall out of your ear – love it!


“It’s a little bit confusing and the excitement is very big,” said David Reis, chief executive at Israeli-US 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys. “There’s a lot of venture capital money coming into the market.” But while enthusiasm for the technology is widespread, some companies see it as more of a long-term prospect than a current game changer. Boeing does not expect to make major metal parts with 3D printing for at least 20 years, though company officials say that time frame could be accelerated. 3D printing “is definitely on the radar screen,” said Dave Dietrich, technical leader for additive metals at the aerospace giant.


As further proof that you can now 3D-print anything, a company called Natural Machines has introduced a 3D printer for food.

The “Foodini,” as it’s called, isn’t too different from a regular 3D printer, but instead of printing with plastics, it deploys edible ingredients squeezed out of stainless steel capsules: “It’s the same technology,” says Lynette Kucsma, co-founder of Natural Machines, “but with plastics there’s just one melting point, whereas with food it’s different temperatures, consistencies and textures.

Hold on to your hat as we explore more opportunities in this exciting new sector in the months to come.