Consumer 3D Printing has a Twitter Problem

Back in 2009, Twitter was still the new kid on the block dealing with Fail Whales and a real question of what they were going to become. During that time people who didn’t use Twitter would often say, “Why would I join Twitter? I don’t care what you had for breakfast.” This proved to be a big hurdle for Twitter as they tried to slowly learn what hooked people and how to describe the value they provided so they could successfully go mainstream.

Today, 3D printing is in a very similar position. There’s tons of press talking about the potential and much activity in the ecosystem. However, just like with Twitter a few years ago, people look at consumer 3D printers today and say things like “I don’t get it. Why would I want to print a bunch of plastic junk?” 

How 3D printing will cross the chasm

What we’re really talking about is a disconnect between a product’s capabilities, its core value, and the average consumer. Twitter was able to cross the chasm thanks to their own learnings of how users best got value from them as well as fortuitous events like the Arab Spring and celebrity events like the passing of Michael Jackson showing a use case everyone could understand.

In the case of consumer 3D printing, they need a few things to happen:

1) Cheap, consumer friendly devices

Consumer electronics seem to currently do best when they’re priced at less than $1,000 (see the Kindle Fire, iPad, most laptops, etc). Currently, the vast majority of 3D printers at that price point require your own assembly and have a steep learning curve. Makerbot, Cubify and many of the Kickstarter printers like the Buccaneer are hard at work to get that price point down and the out of the box functionality significantly improved. Without this, nothing else below matters, because people won’t be able to figure out how to use them.

2) Separate the fantastic from the realistic

Every day there’s an article about something new about 3D printing in medicine, NASA, weaponry or something else exciting or controversial. Unfortunately, all that press hypes up the potential of 3D printers while setting unrealistic expectations on the current state of consumer printers. Helping separate the two is a challenge for everyone in the market. How do you get people excited about the (albeit limited) abilities of consumer 3D printing?

3) A Killer app

Right now, anyone can print what they can imagine if they have the CAD design skills. They can also explore sites like Thingiverse for designs they’d like to download and print. Unfortunately, even downloading a design isn’t guaranteed to be an easy, smooth experience. Even the emergence of cheap 3D scanners feels unlikely to be the silver bullet since consumers will still have the question of what to scan. All of this also ignores the limitation of single-color plastic as your usual printing option.

In another technology’s chasm crossing moment, the PC went mainstream with the inventions of the word processor and spreadsheet, which were 10x better experiences than the typewriter and manual bookkeeping. Not all of the limitations have to be overcome to create a killer app, but the question remains: What can 3D printing be 10x better than for an average consumer?

If there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that movements like these don’t stop. It’s only a question of who leads the innovations and when the market will take the leap to mainstream.

If you’re interested in the 3D Printing industry and are looking for a few updates a month on the industry and observations on what’s next, sign up for my newsletter: