"Viewpoint" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the November/December 2005 issue. 


Are Under $1,000 3D Printers in Our Future?
As 3D printer hardware and materials evolve, and the demand for them increase, some unit prices will likely dip below $20,000 for the first time.

By Terry Wohlers

A 3D printer is a relatively inexpensive variation of additive fabrication technology. Vendor companies are positioning them as machines that can provide quick models very early in the design process. Because of their comparatively low cost and small size, coupled with their office friendliness, user companies are installing them near their CAD systems.

3D printers start at $22,900 for the InVision LD lamination system from 3D Systems (manufactured by Solidimension) and climb to more than $100,000 for the Eden 330/333 from Objet Geometries. Four years ago, the lowest priced 3D printer was $45,000.

As 3D printer hardware and materials evolve, and the demand for them increase, expect significant price reductions. By the end of next year, we will likely see one or more products dip below $20,000 for the first time. One could argue that it has already occurred with the Wizaray system from Japanese company Chubunippon. It sells for about $9,000. However, it is relatively new, is based on a form of stereolithography technology, and only a few systems have been sold to date. Also, it is not available in the U.S. or Europe.

By the end of the decadeand possibly soonerexpect 3D printers to drop to the $10,000 to $15,000 level due to competitive pressures. These machines will cater to small companies and store fronts that provide services to professionals. Instead of selling in quantities of a couple thousand units per year as they do today, they will break the five-digit unit sales figure for the first time. This will further catch the attention of investors and analysts, as well as the mainstream press.

A few years later, watch for 3D printers to decline in price to $3,000 to $5,000. These machines will appeal to engineers and other professionals working from their homes, as well as to sophisticated hobbyists, such as builders of model airplanes and trains. Most hobbyists will not buy a system at this point, but will happily buy parts from a retail/service outlet or over the Internet. The sub-$5,000 systems will also appeal to those who manufacture and sell collectables and figurines, including small startup companies operating from homes. The idea of personal mini-factories popping up everywhere, coupled with relatively inexpensive custom parts, will become intriguing to an even wider spectrum of observers.

3D printers will subsequently drop in price to under $1,000 and they will further penetrate the markets mentioned above, as well as to K to 12 schools. The systems will be used for a wide spectrum of subjects, including technology and manufacturing education, art, math/geometry, and many science-related subjects including biology. Colleges and universities will install them in labs as teaching and research aids in medicine, archeology, and a host of other subjects. 3D printers will become a mainstream tool for nearly all engineering and technology education programs.

Prices will drop further but eventually bottom out at around $299. Very basic and less capable systems could go even lower. A few years ago, German company Buss Müller Technology (BMT) developed and sold a powder fabrication system based on an HP inkjet document printer. BMT added a Z motion system, leveling mechanism, and liquid binder deposition to the inexpensive HP product to produce a fully functional color 3D printer. A similar machine could likely sell for about twice the cost of the base inkjet printer if sold in high enough volume.

The key to market success with the sub-$1000 machines will be the same as they are today with document printers. The real money will be in the consumables, not the machines themselves. Companies such as 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Z Corp. understand this important concept and are working hard to expand their numbers of customers.

It will likely take 10 to 15 years for 3D printers to evolve to the point where they are sold in volumes of tens of thousands annually. No one knows for sure when it will occur, but some would argue that it's inevitable. Bill Gates once said that we tend to over estimate what will happen in three to five years and underestimate what will happen in six to eight years. Before prices drop to four digit levels, it is believed that it will require the marketing and distribution muscle of a large, established multinational such Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, or another company.

One of the largest future market opportunities for very low-cost 3D printers is children. They love to create objects, and they, their parents, and their schools will buy them in large quantities. Consider the past. Many of us grew up playing with Tinkertoys, Creepy Crawlers, Incredible Eatables, Play Dough, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and Lego bricks. All of them are about creating three-dimensional objects.

Today's kids are producing 3D objects on computers. Consider SIMS (a.k.a., SimCity), the most popular computer game in the world. The buildings, furnishings, and surroundings are fully described as 3D models. The computer renders the objects on the screen, so tessellation is occurring, meaning that it should be relatively easy to export the data to STL, VRML, or another faceted format for subsequent fabrication. Consider also the popular video game Unreal Tournament. Already, it permits its users to export STL files.

The future prospects for 3D printing are exciting. If you were to compare 3D printing technology to the evolution of computing, we are currently somewhere between the VAX minicomputer from Digital Equipment Corporation and the UNIX workstation from Apollo and Sun. We certainly have not yet seen the Apple II or the IBM PC. Also ahead are the equivalents of laptops and palm-based computers, but they are a decade or two away.

Companies that are in the 3D printing and additive fabrication business today may survive in the future. However, history suggests that they will be transformed into something very different in the future. Consider computer and CAD companies such as Applicon, Auto-Trol, Calma, Computervision, Control Data, Digital Equipment Corp., Prime Computer, Sperry Univac, and Terak. All were among the top companies in the business in the past, but consider where they are today.

Recurring revenues from consumables will motivate many companies to seek out and attempt to serve a role in the business of 3D printing. It will become especially interesting to them as prices drop from under $10,000 and then to under $1,000. We are in for some interesting times that will span a couple decades of development, so hang on because the ride is sure to be both exciting and challenging.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). For more information visit http://wohlersassociates.com.