It is not uncommon to hear desktop 3D printer users defined as ‘makers’ and the evolution of 3D printing outside of professional and industrial markets defined as the ‘maker movement’. By definition, makers make. So why try to sell 3D printers to consumers? Consumers by definition just consume, right? While the desire of many in the industry is for every household to have a 3D printer in it, is this realistic in the near term? These machines and their users make things after all, and making things is not as easy as consuming them. Creating 3D CAD-type files, for example, is not straightforward. Regardless of how well-reviewed they are, even the best 3D printers are currently far from ‘plug and play’. However, students are learning more each year, thanks to the focus on STEM education (hence the strength of sales of desktop 3D printers in this market) and 3D printers continue to get easier to use with each generation.
Seeing this market evolve, one cannot help but draw comparisons with the early PC market. In the early years, they too were still hard to use and purchasers often required significant hand-holding before and after the sale. Back then, while PC companies also wanted EVERY household to eventually be a PC household, many fully recognised that education and exposure were key and that generations might first need to become comfortable with the technology before it really took off; thus companies like Apple focused their sales effort on such markets as schools. While actually selling PCs to businesses, government entities and educational institutions, PC companies also targeted general consumers by way of distributing products through brick-and-mortar retailers across the globe. Many soon came to agree that targeting office users was more profitable in the near term but that the exposure to so many by way of general retail was also invaluable, just to a less quantifiable extent.
So, if your run-of-the-mill consumer is not about to purchase a 3D printer anytime soon, why are they appearing more and more on retail shelves? Because the reach and exposure allowed by retail storefronts is hard to pass up – seeing new devices live (and being able to put your hands on them) is very important for industry growth. Every B2B buyer is also a consumer at the weekend. So each engineer, architect, student and software developer using a 3D printer at their work/office during the week also shops at Best Buy, Sam’s Club, Media Markt, Carrefour, Tesco and the like. For the retailer, showcasing the latest products in their storefront demonstrates that they are on the cutting edge of technology.
Retail floor space is expensive, however. Most of the current momentum in the industry has come by way of the press and by word-of-mouth, with exposure to the technology at a storefront looking to be the next evolution of the market (rather than say by way of a Super Bowl advertisement). Companies like Microsoft recognise this and have showcased 3D printers in their retail outlets for some time now. Sure Microsoft has them available for sale, but it is primarily using the technology as part of its branding effort: by showcasing the technology there, Microsoft stores become a destination retailer like Apple stores (which are not usually located far away).
The desktop 3D printing market continues to grow at a sizeable rate and, while consumer electronics retailers can be a part of this growth, they are not expected to lead the effort although they are integral to the process. Having 3D printers available in major retail outlets across the globe makes sense for the retailer as well as for the 3D printer manufacturers both today and tomorrow. At the current stage of the market, the return on investment of placement in retail is measured in terms of advertising and brand development rather than being based on the number of units shipped.