The Real Opportunity in 3D Printing: Content
It’s a typical school day. In the midst of the normal morning bustle you hear your son and daughter bickering loudly. You saunter in to check things out and find them huddled around the family 3D printer. Judy wants to print a bangle that will match her outfit. Elroy needs a new iPhone case, but there are only 30 minutes before school. Who gets the printer?
While this sounds like a scene from The Jetsons, the announcements from MakerBot and 3D Systems at this year's Consumer Electronics Show promise to make this very argument possible by the summer. In fact, if you are a 3D printing geek, you have been able to print out your own bangles and iPhone cases for a few years now -- assuming you are adept at 3D modeling software and have endless hours to tinker with temperamental machines, bits of plastic filament everywhere, and the frustration of producing many failed prints for each good one.
But while it's easy to be mesmerized by all the new 'stuff' we can conjure into being with our 3D printers, the hardware is only the beginning of the story. Long term, 3D printing will spawn a new content revolution, because in this world, objects are content.
A 3D Printer in your living room?
The technology for 3D printing has been advancing at a breathtaking pace. The two big players -- MakerBot, the pioneer of desktop 3D printing acquired last year by Stratasys, and Industry giant 3D Systems -- announced their newest generation of consumer hardware and software at CES this year. I own products from both companies. My firm is also an investor in Formlabs, a maker of 3D printers for professionals, and I sit on the company's board.
Industry giants Makerbot and 3D Systems are ready to lay claim to your family room. The race is on.
Yet, in their private moments, you’d get the management of both 3D Systems and MakerBot to admit that wide consumer adoption is a ways off. Ultimately, both companies want to be looked upon as the Apple of 3D printing, and they're willing to invest early to develop the market.
A revolution in the making
Just three years ago, if you hunted around CES you might have bumped into MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis in a tiny booth proudly displaying his “Thing-o-Matic,” a DIY 3D printer kit designed for hackers. He was inundated with curiosity-seekers. That's quite a contrast to this year's CES, which featured an entire section for 3D printing. It was populated by many companies, some quite large, showcasing printers that can produce not only plastic, but materials such as candy and ceramics. Clothes can’t be far behind.
As an early adopter, I have little doubt that 3D printers will be a vibrant part of our future. But just like the PC revolution, 3D printing is likely to first have the most impact for professionals. For designers, engineers, and inventors, desktop 3D printers are a game- changer. They allow rapid prototyping at very low cost and result in free-flowing creativity unrestricted by cost.
Just think of all those garage inventors who can now affordably prototype and build out product concepts. Combine this with the power of crowdfunding sites such as KickStarter, and we're on our way to the democratization of invention.
Content is king
Here's the catch: 3D printers, while not exactly plug-and-play yet, are getting pretty close. But what to print? If you're an armchair designer, you can have fun printing your ideas. But most consumers consume rather than create. That is where one of the most interesting opportunities lies.
Remember those silvery music CDs? Now they are digital streams. If you take a gander at MakerBot’s Thingiverse site or 3D Systems' Cubify, you will see thousands of objects posted that can be downloaded and printed. Many can be customized pretty easily. This is the beginning of the real consumerization of 3D printing. It’s not difficult to imagine Amazon selling products such as smartphone covers as digital files that stream directly to an Amazon printer in your home, magically appearing like things did in Captain Kirk’s Replicator. This could spawn a whole generation of creative professionals who design products to be printed at home or at local service bureaus like Shapeways.
The 3D Printing section at CES 2014 was all abuzz as none other than Martha Stewart was checking out the booths shopping for her first 3D printer. Downloadable Martha Stewart napkin rings may be just around the corner. Stay tuned.
BARRY SCHULER | Columnist
Barry Schuler is managing director for DFJ Growth and the former chairman and CEO of America Online. He is credited with being one of the pioneers of the modern Internet.