3D-Printing Not Yet Mainstream, But Critics Are Missing the Point (Op-Ed)

Scott Dunham is a research manager with Photizo Group, a market research and consulting firm. This article was adapted from Dunham's post to the Photizo Group website. He contributed this article to Tom's Guide's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

First, it was the 3D-printing evangelists. They really started coming out of the woodwork around 2010, when 3D Systems bought into the personal 3D-printing market, making claims like "3D printing will be bigger than the Internet," and "3D printing is the next industrial revolution."

Do I dispute those claims directly? Not exactly, but I certainly recognize the nature of those who make such claims. Usually, they come from people who have a vested interest in making 3D printing popular.

Now, the 3D-printing detractors are getting their share of the spotlight — for each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, I suppose. They're saying things like "3D printing is a gimmick," and "3D printing has no commercial value."

I do have to admit that, in my experience, those in the 3D-printing detractor camp usually have more direct experience with the technology than do the advocates. But I can't help but end up disagreeing with them to a greater degree than I do with the evangelists.

A recent survey from U.K.-based market research firm Ipsos MORI is making its rounds in the 3D blogosphere and Twittersphere under the headline "Only 6 Percent of Britons Want a 3D Printer," and is being accompanied by plenty of skepticism on what this might mean for the future of 3D printing as a widely adopted technology that will change life as we know it.

Here's the thing — whether you're an evangelist or detractor, few people are looking at "consumer" 3D printing with the right perspective. 3D printers aren't meant for everyone. I think content produced using 3D-printers will be more popular commercially than the actual printers themselves.

The elements of trial and error, persistence, and patience — which most people claim need to be eliminated from the desktop 3D-printing experience in order for it to succeed — will never be completely eliminated. You can't create something worthwhile without some degree of dedication, persistence and hardship. The thoughtless operation of the latest tablets and smartphones will not apply here.

What does this mean for widespread 3D-printing adoption? It simply means that most people need to put this fantastic technology into perspective. The study from Ipsos MORI illustrates this concept. Most people appear surprised that "only" 6 percent of the British population said they were interested in owning a 3D printer. Some assumed that, like the smartphone, 3D printers would, at this point, have nearly universal appeal among consumers. Others, seeing the 6 percent data point, would use this as validation to prove that 3D printers aren't legitimate and could never live up to the claims being made about them.

But let's think about this a little bit: 6 percent of the U.K.'s population is nearly 4 million people. The number of personal 3D printers that have been sold so far is likely fewer than 50,000 units worldwide. That's a staggering difference in potential future demand, in just one country.

Now, I'm not saying that survey really proves anything — there's still no telling if all those people who say they want a 3D printer will actually get one. But the point is this: At a consumer level, 3D printing is probably going to stay in the realm of hobbyist and semiprofessional usage by people who want to invest the time and effort to become proficient with the technology, in whatever form that may be. It is when these future hobbyists start applying 3D printing to their other hobbies and businesses that the technology will really start to take off.

The content that will be 3D printed in the future probably will be more popular than 3D printers themselves, in terms of consumer adoption. That content alone is going to be pretty revolutionary. But if the study out of Britain demonstrates anything, it's that there's still a huge pool of future demand for 3D printers. They might not be in every household, but if you're expecting them to be, you're probably looking at the technology the wrong way.

The views expressed are those of the author, contributed to the Tom's Guide's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights section, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Tom's Guide.