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Hobbyists will be first serious users of consumer 3-D printing

It could be a long time before home 3-D printing becomes mainstream for consumers.

Would you like to print your own, custom sneakers right in your own home? How about an action figure or bobblehead with your face on it? From the essential to the inane, 3-D printing has no shortage of prospective uses. But are these expectations realistic and when should we expect 3-D printing to have an effect on consumers?

As we've seen with other emerging technologies, 3-D printing is advancing at a rapid pace as capabilities increase and costs drop. For a few hundred or a few thousand dollars you can buy a 3-D printer that lets you produce small physical objects from digital files created in CAD programs, contained in 3-D scans or downloaded from the Internet.

The primary buyers of these 3-D printers are hobbyists, often part of the "maker" movement. The main products created by 3-D printers fall into a few categories: toys and hobbies; jewelry, sculpture and works of art; and prototypes (by entrepreneurs, home-based businesses, experimenters).

Most likely, hobbyists and experimenters will use 3-D printing centers to satisfy their 3-D printing desires. Existing outlets that provide printing services, like FedEx-Kinko's and the UPS Store, are beginning to install 3-D printers, as are independent printing centers. Rumors abound that retail stores and even post offices might do the same.

But it's hard to imagine widespread use of 3-D printing for everyday consumer items readily available at low cost. Printing these items at home takes time and effort, not to mention supplies and experience using the printer. Although consumers in remote locations might benefit from being able to produce items at home, the economics simply don't support 3-D printing of commodity items.

Nevertheless, customized and personalized items offer the most potential for 3-D printing at home -- the sneakers and bobbleheads. But is it realistic to think that a consumer could print a sneaker? Doubtful, because a sneaker is typically comprised of a number of parts, made from different materials. If the consumer could print all the parts, he would still have to assemble them, and that would require skills and equipment he is not likely to have. A Crocs-type shoe is another matter -- molded from a single material, such an item could conceivably be 3-D printed, with the advantage of being customizable in the digital definition for an exact fit.

But with unadorned models (one-piece or two-piece construction) retailing for $10 to $40, the consumer would have to print a lot of shoes to justify the cost of the printer, plus the supplies and time and effort required. Some consumers would value the uniqueness of their shoe enough for it to be worth the trouble but most would be satisfied with the standard, mass-produced version that they can find at a nearby store or order online.

As an emerging technology, 3-D printing may affect consumers someday, but initially it will be limited to technically oriented hobbyists. Of course, it was tech hobbyists who first started assembling and using personal computers with little or no compelling need for what the machines could accomplish. Now, virtually every household has at least one PC or equivalent (tablet, smartphone), and entire consumer markets have been eliminated or irrevocably changed.

In 1977, Ken Olsen, founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corp., told a convention of the World Future Society "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Any new technology that enters the market must find a reason for being -- a need that it satisfies that's sufficient to motivate its adoption and growth. PCs found their place and became ubiquitous. That example offers intriguing hints as to the future of 3-D printing.

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