I have never dreamed about playing in any band, or of other hardly promising activities that would kill free time and possibly provide something to earn my keep. A dungeon keep, for example. It is not in my nature to get into lost causes. Is the 3D printing market as tragic as Paweł depicts it in his article about his unfulfilled / fulfilled dreams? Why everything seems to hint that it is a dark blind alley with questionable characters at its end? But maybe there is some hope for the market and all the “unfortunates” who invested in it?

How can an analysis of an industry be performed without a large amount of data from the whole world? Information of this kind is not given for free, the number of reliable sources is scarce. Therefore, I shall support my presentation with the analogue prognosis method, i.e., by means of analogy – a suitable analogy for our technology. The entirety of the analysis will focus on the unprofessional market, which is to some extent reflected by the statistics provided by various Google tools, omitting the professional part of the market, which has developed and will develop quite independently of conditions among home users.

Why does everything seem hopeless?

As Paweł mentioned before, the Google search statistics can be used as a basis to determine the popularity of a topic, however, it can not in any way be rendered into monetary values of the market. The number of searches only demonstrates the popularity of a phrase which occurred during a given time period among the so-called “everyman”. More importantly, Google does not tell us who perform the searches, and in the case of such a young industry is of paramount importance. It should also be noted that in the case of technology the media popularity does not translate into a popularity among the general society. To prove the point it is enough to examine three headlines in combination with 3D printing.

I believe there is a clear a trend, which concerned the four technologies: 3D printing, graphen, e-ink and 3D scanning. Up till January 2012 they exhibited a very similar trend, which did not forecast any of the subjects any growth possibilities. The situation is drastically changed a few months later when 3D print takes off like Concord. What contributed to such a rapid increase in such a short period? The question could only be answered with “Nothing special…” We are not dealing with a revolution in the field, only an evolution, which becomes clear when we add a fifth term to our trend, i.e., “3D printer”.

The data demonstrate that the growth of interest in the “3D printer” occurred much earlier than the interest in the technology itself. The reasons for such a peculiar phenomenon may be found in the community – in this case the electronic engineers community, who would be the first ones to begin amateur work on the RepRap printers. These enthusiasts may be divided into two groups which may be defined in a simplified manner as follows: the first group consists of people who, after building a working RepRap think about starting their business because they see it as an incredible potential, whereas the second group are more experienced people, working in large companies/corporations, who know that a market does not form so easily and who slowly begin spreading the concept of the 3D printing and convincing others that it does make sense. It is they who initiated the education of the public – something that the first group had forgotten about. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call our two groups: blacksmiths and missionaries. I should remind you here that both groups are in the same team of enthusiasts, at least until no serious money is involved yet.

The missionaries’ reach, however, is very limited and is fairly quickly followed by saturation, which should limit the growth of interest. Nevertheless, in the case of 3D printing it is otherwise, at the beginning of 2013 a soaring popularity of the subject can be seen.

What happened that the subject has become so popular and continued to grow in the statistics? The answer is not obvious but the “guilty ones” may be indicated – they include such headlines as the famous gun 3d printed completely in the FDM technology on a 3D printer, the camouflage structure for large objects, etc.

What can be observed in these type of projects is their origin, for example the Liberator was printed on the equipment supplied by Stratasys, though the corporation does not boast of this news to all and sundry. It is a fact mentioned only occasionally here and there. The same applies to many other projects, which, although not particularly unique, have penetrated into the mainstream media. Of course, this may be haphazard, however, it is worth remembering that the likes of 3D Systems, Stratasys, TierTime at some point had to take the unprofessional market into account, which would at some point supplement the companies’ product mix. Hypothetically, joining in the promotion of the technology could bring them benefits in the near future. Entering into a strong consumer market would be more cost-effective and safe for the giants than venturing into unexplored territory, it also seems to stem from the BCG matrix model for 3D printing industry, which I have described earlier.

Assuming that the hypothesis of the 3D printing market’s support by the large companies is true, what could have happened that recently virtually all branches of the non-professional market were slightly affected and the subject lost its popularity? I would venture to present three further hypotheses, namely:

• the entering of much larger players into the market, who are able to seize the success generated by others;
• the change of strategy and forfeiting the consumer market;
• the achievement of the intended purpose and a transition to another stage.

The first possibility seems quite likely except for one fact – all the large and powerful players on this market have stakes in one joint venture, that is the 3MF consortium, where surely the pie has been long since divided. Changing the course of the action is not infeasible but it would be at least odd, given that in the long run the whole technology is rather promising and profitable. In this case my bet would be the third option, that is approaching a stage in the development of technology and the entire ecosystem of 3D printing.

On the basis of experiences in other technologies – some based on the available statistics and some on a gut feeling, I would anticipate that something very spectacular will soon take place in the 3D printing world, as more and more things seem to indicate that. Such a clue could be found in Microsoft’s activity, the creation of the 3D builder, a very user friendly software for simple editing and previewing files for 3D printers. Rather significantly, the program is a native component of Windows 10 and by default supports selected 3D printers or, alternatively – the option of ordering printouts. What should be noted is the fact that Microsoft has never been a particularly innovative company and would rather not invest funds in a program which had no good safeguards to ensure a return on investment.

Should this prognosis pan out, there are two things which should be borne in mind. On one hand, we can expect the long-awaited revolution, on the other – revolutions often eat their own children, which in this case may not end well for smaller businesses.

Such reflections are only conjectural for now, what I can do now, as promised earlier, is to indicate the industry, which I believe reflects the development of 3D printing rather well.

The comparison

Certainly, various examples could be used to compare with the 3D printing industry, however, I chose a subject I find familiar because of my passion for gadgets. The first really cool device that I had was the Palm Pilot Pro, i.e., the PDA (or palmtop). The devices were really “cool”, they could be used to read, write notes, receive mail (if anyone had a modem), play, etc. Over time, the market of mobile assistants grew a lot and larger players, such as Compaq and HP, would enter into the production of the equipment. The operating systems matured and would become really useful. I used several such devices throughout the period of a few years. After a short time my collection would include the first phones with the Symbian operating system, then the Pocket PC and Windows Phone. Back then the category of phones with an operating system did not have a common name and it took a few more years before the world has decided to use one definition, the smartphone.

But what do the PDA market (which nowadays exists only in professional applications, e.g., bar code scanners), the smartphones, and the 3D printers market have in common? I believe a lot, with some minor differences – like several other technologies, these two are going through a similar phase of development.

Should we make a comparison, for a certain period (2007-2015), of the popularity of two phrases: smartphones and 3D print, we will see that their diagrams have a similar appearance. Of course, the smartphone as a concept has started to become established much earlier, which makes it incomparably stronger.

In the above chart I used a third data string – for the popularity of the phrase “iPhone”, which in my mind is a very important variable, that the 3D printing currently lacks. There is still no such company that would be able to revolutionize the market in such a way to make the home users want to have a device in their home. The chart clearly demonstrates that home users, who are mostly visible in the graph, at the beginning did not look for smartphones, because to them only the iPhone was the real smartphone. For many people Apple’s phone was synonymous with the word smartphone and it was this brand that started to establish the position of the entire industry.

If in the coming year no leader enters with a bang which would spur the industry to soar, it may end up as in the case of Concorde – everything works as it should, the flights are fine, those who use it are satisfied, but it is not really necessary. And when people do not know what they need, the companies must create the need for them.


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