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Got a 3D printer? You may be at least 5 years ahead of the curve

We’ve managed to do some pretty amazing things with 3D printers in the last few years, printing out everything from living replicas of Van Gogh’s ear to revolutionary casts that make your bones heal faster. There are even relatively affordable 3D printers for kids. Despite that, they’re still very much in the domain of the early adopter. I mean think about it, is your mom mulling over getting one any time soon?

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If technology research house Gartner is to be believed though, that’s likely to change within the next five years with business and medicine more likely to adopt the technology in the short term.

“Consumer 3D printing is around five to 10 years away from mainstream adoption,” says Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner. “Today, approximately 40 manufacturers sell the 3D printers most commonly used in businesses, and over 200 startups worldwide are developing and selling consumer-oriented 3D printers, priced from just a few hundred dollars. However, even this price is too high for mainstream consumers at this time, despite broad awareness of the technology and considerable media interest.”

After speaking with organisations ranging from technology providers to end users, government agencies, educational institutions and investment firms, Gartner has identified two themes:

First, the enterprise 3D printing market is very different from the consumer market. It’s true that at this early stage there are some similarities between them as organizations are beginning to employ “consumer” devices in order to learn about 3D printing’s potential benefits with minimal risk and capital investment. Fundamentally, however, the two markets are driven by different uses and requirements and must be evaluated separately.

Second, 3D printing is not one technology but seven different ones. “Hype around home use obfuscates the reality that 3D printing involves a complex ecosystem of software, hardware and materials whose use is not as simple to use as ‘hitting print’ on a paper printer,” says Basiliere.

The seven different technologies each have pros and cons, and printers work with varying build sizes and materials. This means organisations must begin with the end products in mind: “First, determine the material, performance and quality requirements of the finished items first; second, determine the best 3D printing technology; and third, select the right 3D printer.”

That’s one reason why consumer 3D printing currently sits on the peak of inflated expectations on Gartner’s 3D printing hype cycle.

For now, 3D printing’s best use probably remains prototyping, where it can be used to rapidly test out new designs and technologies.

“3D prototyping enables organizations to reduce or mitigate the risks associated with the design, form and functionality of products in research and development programs. It may also be used to support new manufacturing processes, and can reduce new product development schedules,” says Basiliere.

That’s one reason why 3D printing will probably become mainstream much faster in the business space, where it’s expected to become seriously widespread in two to five years, than it will in the consumer space.

On a larger scale meanwhile, 3D printing of large structures and classroom 3D printing are more than 10 years away from mainstream adoption. As Gartner points out though, that’s not to say that they don’t have valid uses now, just that the technologies used in these specific areas is still very young and has a long way to grow.

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