3D printers for home use are emerging from the relative obscurity of web-based sales - often, one suspects, attached to addresses corresponding to garages in residential districts - into the mainstream of the high street.
In July, UK electronics retailer Maplin announced that it would be offering a self-assembled 3D printer priced at £699.99 in its stores and hot on their heels, this month, Microsoft announced it would be selling Makerbot 3D printers in its stores, at a slightly pricier $2,549 but in this case ready-assembled. Makerbot itself has just opened its own retail store in New York.
Short term implications
The implications of this development for the home market in 3D printing are, in the short term, that it will probably not have very much impact at all. Hobbyists willing to pay these kinds of prices would anyway have bought a printer, be it on-line or in-store, and whilst seeing 3D printers in action in store may generate interest, it is unlikely that many consumers would, on impulse, spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on an appliance that allows them to print plastics trinkets they almost certainly could obtain more cheaply and with a better finish by other means.
Added to this is the fact that, despite all the excitement that has been generated around 3D printing, a home-use 3D printer in action is really not that spectacular. Call me a cynic, but having watched many an extrusion head take hours to painfully slowly lay down thin layers of plastic, at the same time emitting rather unpleasant plastic odours, I have come to the conclusion that it is an activity somewhat akin to watching paint dry (although paint smells nicer). In fact, allowing the public to see the printers in action could potentially take some of the wind out of the sails of the technology. Anyone expecting to see their (obligatory) star wars character rapidly emerge a la Star Trek teleportation from their printer will be gravely disappointed.
But in the mid-to long term...
The smart move in introducing 3D printers to the high street however, as opposed to using networks of resellers, is that the former is clearly the better way to introduce the technology to the young. The availability of 3D printers in stores and their likely appeal to children could well develop the home 3D printing market into a seasonal one. Parents who can afford it might purchase 3D printers for their children at, for example, Christmas, although this will be dependent on recent scares regarding the health hazards of plastic fumes dying down. Such a market is also likely to be relatively small in the mid-term due to the prices (both of printers and material feedstock's) being prohibitively high for most.
In the long term, it is certainly to the advantage of the 3D printer manufacturers to see a generation of young people familiar with 3D printing and its capabilities hit the job market. We might even expect in the not too distant future to see TV advertisements for 3D printers targeting children hit the screen.
To develop into a mass market however, where every home has a 3D printer, the challenge remains to the manufacturers to demonstrate the value of their product. Everyone knows what a microwave oven can do for them, but what is the case for spending a relatively large sum of money on something that can print plastic?
This challenge as yet remains unanswered.