Will there be a 3D printer in every home?

Sales of consumer 3D devices are low and there are challenges ahead. But the consumer sector may just have sorted out its problems, as Charles Orton-Jones reports

Let’s be frank. The consumer market for 3D printers is miles behind the industrial sector. Sales are small. Last year Juniper estimates 44,000 consumer-grade devices were sold worldwide. You can’t buy one in John Lewis. PC World stocks one solitary model.

Which is on the face of it pretty odd. There is a lot of hype about consumer 3D printers. In terms of functionality, these little beauties are pretty solid. Most melt plastic filament and build up objects layer by layer. Make a chess piece or quirky jewellery item and you are guaranteed fine results.

Consumers have lots of choice too. And the devices on the market look so fantastic they should be flying off the shelves.

The RepRap Mini Kossel (£425) can print largish objects in different colours, such as vases and screwdriver handles. You get to build the printer too and if that doesn’t teach the inner mysteries of 3D printing nothing will. The Cubify Cube 3 (£839) extrudes 20 colours and can print direct from an iPhone, Android app or special software for Mac or PC. It’s a cute little box, smaller than a microwave oven, and will look spectacular in the living room. The Makerbot Mini (£1,200) is superlative quality, with Batman-esque styling. The Printrbot Simple Maker (£372) is astoundingly cheap.

So let’s get one thing clear. In terms of price, looks and branding, the current crop of printers is affordable, workable and usable. In that case, why is there such hesitancy in the industry about the consumer market?

Two reasons. The first is that using consumer printers isn’t simple. Crikey, using normal printers isn’t always simple, as anyone staring at a flashing message “Load Error 13” will know. The industry knows that for something to appeal to all consumers, not just the hardcore maker community, the devices need to be foolproof. Consumers don’t want to listen to technical waffle about filament compositions and file types.

The second reason is that industrial devices are so versatile that the consumer range looks a little underpowered by comparison. The worry is that it will always lag.

The industry is acutely aware of these issues. The software issue is being rapidly resolved. Adobe is updating Photoshop to support 3D printing. Richard Curtis of Adobe says the current STL (stereolithography) format used by most consumer devices is flawed, but there are fixes arriving.

“Because hardware and material innovation is progressing so quickly, this format is quickly becoming out of date for these more advanced machines,” says Mr Curtis. “The STL format does not support any colour in its definition or any security and both of these attributes are becoming more important in today’s world, particularly for the creative community as well as businesses and service providers.”

NEW COMMERCIAL ERA

Adobe Photoshop will read and write in Universal 3D, part of the 3D PDF. This can be locked with 256-bit security. Sounds like a small step, but it is the sort of progress needed to take the industry into the new commercial era.

The real problem for the industry is that consumers don’t know what they would do with a 3D printer

Computer-aided design (CAD) software makers are trying to do their bit. Autodesk is the creator of one of the world’s foremost packages, AutoCAD. The firm is about to launch its own 3D printer, and more importantly has created Spark, an online marketplace for sharing open-sourced 3D hardware and product designs. Even its new printer will be entirely open source. Rival makers will be able to see the designs and use them. Why would Autodesk do this? Autodesk maker advocate Jesse Harrington Au says: “The bigger the 3D market the better for us. We haven’t figured out how to make money from this, but we figured that, if we open up the consumer market to 3D, then that can only help us a company.”

Even if the technical solutions are there, consumers will still need to know what they can make. This isn’t clear, worries Chris Elsworthy, founder of the Robox 3D printer (£850), who says: “The accepted wisdom is that consumers will embrace 3D printing when printers are relatively cheap and very easy to use. In this case, as in many others, the accepted wisdom is wrong.

“The price of 3D printers has already plummeted and ‘plug-and-print’ models like Robox are already available. In fact, the real problem for the industry is that consumers don’t know what they would do with a 3D printer. Time and again at trade shows the first question potential buyers ask me is ‘What would I print with it?’ Rather than focusing on the technical smarts of individual machines, 3D printer manufacturers need to send out the message there are good reasons to own a printer and point to the fact that the blueprints for hundreds of thousands of 3D objects are already available online, for free.”

One left-field future for consumer machines needs mentioning. 3D food. It sounds bonkers, but is advancing fast.

The Foodini 3D Printer (£830) is about to hit the shelves. It uses five capsules to build food, from ravioli parcels to abstract shapes. Consumers can load the capsules with their own ingredients or buy pre-made edible materials. Founder Lynette Kucsma says: “With a 3D food printer, you can make fresh foods faster and easier than you can by hand or with any other kitchen appliance.

“Note that our proposition is not to say that everything you eat should be 3D printed, just like everything you eat now doesn’t come out of an oven. But think about your favourite packaged foods that you buy, that if you were to make by hand would require forming, shaping or layering, from simple pretzels or breadsticks, to ravioli. That’s where 3D food printers shine.”

PRINTING WITH INSECTS

Three academics at London South Bank University, Susana Soares, Andrew Forkes and Dr Ken Spears, are working on insect-based 3D foods. Ms Soares says: “The foods are made by drying and then grinding insects into a fine powder. The resulting ‘flour’ is then mixed with other food products, such as icing butter, chocolate, spices and cream cheese, to form the right consistency.” Her reason? “As the population grows, insects will be a solution to some food problems.”

Her collaborator Dr Spears adds: “Mealworms have proved to be quite useful – you can get a 40 to 50 per cent protein count. We have then been turning them into flour, combining that with a fondant paste and using it in a 3D printer.”

Mealworm burgers printed at home? Why not? That’s the point about consumer 3D printers; no one quite knows what they’ll be used for. That versatility could turn out to be their greatest strength.