web analytics
post icon

There’s no money in 3D printing

Just a little heads up. In the long run there is no money in 3D printing. Sure, great mountains of wealth await as do IPO’s and even more hype. Don’t worry I’m sure lots of people will get private jets out of this yet. But, if we speak of the future of this technology than ultimately there will be no money in it.

3D printers

What is the world market for a Universal Making Machine? A machine that could make circuits, LCD screens, cars, airplanes, glasses, hearts; everything. How many machines that can make everything could you sell at what price?  Well, theoretically such a machine could be worth billions but actually you’d probably sell a few to research institutes and then one to a commercial company and then it is game over for you. Because all of your customers could use this machine to make everything including your Universal Making Machine so everyone would just undercut one another and keep on making Universal Making Machines until the price point will be barely above the cost of materials.

You might be able to in the near term make money off of service but again once there is a Universal Making Machine once something is broken you will just print it again. You might then think that the right thing to do is to develop a Near Universal Making machine that makes only 80% of things and can not make a true Universal Making Machine. But, once you sell that then all your customers could potentially out-innovate you by being more ambitious. This is apart from your existing competition which will compete by making more things than you can and apart from those nice people at the Rep Rap project who don’t care about money just about self-replicating machines.  As long as the Rep Rap projects stays alive then these guys will eventually make UMM’s reality.

The way to sustained profitability then is to make a machine that is very good at making certain things but not all things and surely not UMM’s. A 3D printer that is really amazing at hearing aids but not good at anything else,for example.  This would keep your market alive and be profitable. Unless of course someone releases a UMM which can spread its development costs over many more markets and applications.  In so doing it will become a better and cheaper device. In this way 3D printer manufacturers will be locked in a perpetual game theory group hug.

3D printing is any process by which something is built up layer by layer. As the market grows more and more researchers and companies are going to find that their technology which is not being used for 3D printing can be applied to 3D printing. If there are investment inflows into 3D printing these researchers will enter the market. There are many thousands of these possible technologies and they could all come out of left field at any time. This will propel existing companies into more product development because they can be wiped out at any moment if they don’t.

The reality of 3D printing is that people enter the market by realizing the potential this technology has in changing the world and once they enter the 3D printing business immediately do all they can to throttle this potential by making it artificially more expensive. Good news is that inevitably 3D printers will be free or very close to the cost of the material used to make it.

3D printing material

Mexicans dissolve one another in vats for the same material margins that some people are making on 3D printing materials. It looks like a nice fat and happy business to be in. But, the plastics mayors are waiting on the sidelines looking at this business and waiting for it to become big enough for them to bother. Arkema, DSM and Evoniq are already involved in some way because they see the potential and derive a tiny bit of revenue from this industry. But, the margins on this stuff are surreal for these guys. I was once discussing a particular 3D printing material with a manager at a plastics company and there was a moment of confusion where he mistook the price I was willing to pay per Kilo for the price per ton.

The market is fragmented and there are many different colors and grades needed for the different materials. Each 3D printing process is a completely different technology requiring a completely different material. Even between machines and similar machines from different vendors there are differences in the optimal material and things such as additives. This is helping to insulate the market from low prices. But, any significant lowering of material price will make everything made with this machine cheaper. If this market comes to a point whereby there are several hundred thousand printers worldwide and material volumes increase then it will be transformed into a slaughterhouse. As soon as individual grades, colors and materials all correspond to the run cost of ABS  lines, development costs of polyamides or the costs of developing additives. All of a sudden 3D printing material becomes a cost effective and incredibly high margin activity for these plastics companies. Overnight it will make sense for all.

Machines can be repurposed for different materials and the more capable the machines become the more of their own material they can process. At the same time (,) the ultimate dream is of course to have recyclebots that could at home simply turn unused or unliked things into new build material. Machines could be made to recycle all sorts of trash into build material.

Plastics is a nice and lovely scale business as are all the build materials for 3D printing so it will naturally evolve from a high margin business to a low margin one. Recyclebots are also inevitable and will greatly reduce the demand for materials as well as the cost of materials for the user. Ultimately materials manufacturers will be caught up in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario and the costs of materials will approach zero. 

3D printing software

So many companies want to be a platform that for consumers it is a bit like living in Donkey Kong. There are 3 categories of 3D printing software: creation software, platform software and the 3D printing toolchain.

At the moment, 3D modeling and CAD applications are high cost and complex. A new generation of creation software such as 3Dtin is emerging that is easy and free. This will be the paradigm for the industry with everyone trying to become a YouTube/Adobe Reader/postscript for the industry on the file creation front. Competitors such as Aviary, Google and Autodesk will keep things lively and in the long run it will be a clash of the titans whereby the AGAM companies (Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft) will look at all this juicy 3D content and see it as yet another dataset to be swallowed up in the battle to organize all information and sell all things. This will ensure that good free tools will predominate.

Thingiverse/Shapeways are clearly winner takes all businesses and very comfortable business models for Venture Capitalists to invest in. At the same time, all service bureaus are a community and toolchain away from being good competitors for either. The competitive threat should ensure that these platforms remain low cost and might be profitable for a while. But, in the long run with software becoming lower in cost and more accessible even the margins of these businesses will evaporate.

File repair, 3D printing slicing and 3D printing service bureau management software is currently expensive as are many of  the other elements of the 3D printing software toolchain. With Netfabb, the industry has a real free player on their hands however  it will be a matter of time before Materialise has to respond to this especially since Autodesk is also getting involved. Although high-end repair software will still be sold decades from now in companies the software for the consumer will be free. More files means better software and a bigger installed base on the software front will lead to more 3D printing orders and lots of other business models. Being the second biggest 3D printing toolchain company, being the second biggest 3D print platform or being the second biggest 3D creation software company will suck. Go to Tom and ask him about that on MySpace.

Files & Designs

How about design files and the designs people make? Sure you could make money if people like you or want to support you by giving you a tip of some sort. But, with the world being flatter than ever before and with better software the wages of designers will be lowered across the board. Star designers could still command high prices since they would be a brand but eventually everyone that is not a star will feel the same pressures that professional photographers now feel. Amateur activity will replace professions. Better software will also make possible widespread generative design, automated design, collaboration as well as making designing and engineering accessible to everyone. Remixing files and mass customization will make 3D printing easier and more accessible. This will slowly but surely move from being an activity that few can do to something that many can do. Somewhere somehow someone is working to Twitter design. And with this I mean: we could all publish on the web with HTML but few did; we could all publish on the web with blogging tools but few did successfully; we could all publish online with Facebook and Twitter and hundreds of millions did. At one point there will be a software tool that will make design and engineering for 3D printing similar to Word, Twitter or Facebook. It won’t mean we will all make good things, it won’t mean we will all make beautiful things but we can all make things and millions of people will do it.

The future

Eventually, all the 3D printing software, all the machines, all the material and all the files will be free. This means that 3D printing will be poised to suck the value out of manufacturing. This sustainable ecosystem of complimentary tools will, much like Craigslist did for newspaper classified ads, drain the value from the manufactured world. With more things being 3D printed and less things being mass produced mass manufacturing will, imperceptibly initially, become less economical and viable. It is in this manner that eventually there will be no money in 3D printing or any other manufacturing, design or distribution.


Get through this post OK? There are more..

Given enough eyeballs all things are shallow.

Iterative product development, using 3D printing in combat.

Mission Possible, full face masks.

3D printing a blank canvas.

The Sistine Chapel in an age of screens.

Dear HP, Brother and Seiko, please make a 3D printer.

Punished for producing quality.

Dieter Rams vs. Jony Ive.

3D printing verus Mass production, 1% of everything.

Creative Commons Attribution, Ekai, Creative Tools & FDEcornite.

  • Share/Bookmark


Leave a comment
  1. Dizingof
    02. Jan, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    Bull’s-eye ..

  2. Manfred van der Voort
    04. Jan, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    Well interesting article. Well done. Just a remark on the believes of a free economy. I personaly don’t believe that everything becomes free.

    “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” – Milton Friedman – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_ain't_no_such_thing_as_a_free_lunch

    People do more and more realize that there is always a price for something which is free of charge.

  3. lolinternet
    05. Jan, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    Please change your blog so that you don’t hijack my arrow keys. I like to use the up and down arrows to scroll through articles, because I have hand problems that can make using a mouse painful. Because of this, I ended up jumping to the top and comment sections of this article a few times by accident, with the end result being that I only skimmed the article. It seems like you have compelling content, but this UI problem is too frustrating for me to deal with and finish the article.

    • Matt George
      08. Feb, 2013 at 3:19 pm #


      • Ming on Mongo
        06. Apr, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

        Excellent and fascinating article, and even if the technology still takes quite a bit longer to ”mature”, agreed, the trends are clear, and we’re obviously looking at the next stage in the industrial revolution. Of course the emergence of cheap desktop printing was arguably the ”prototype”, and that actually ended up increasing the size of the printing industry!

        BTW, while you’re at it with the ‘arrow’ thang… could you also quit “hijacking” my vowel keys. No special reason, except they’re ”mine” and I’m just ”special”!

  4. Your Name
    05. Jan, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    I think if you need large scale manufacturing, 3d printing will never be more economical than mass production. The future you’re envisioning doesn’t really make sense to me.

    Normal people will generally not use 3d printers because they’re a niche technology. Even if they were available everywhere, regular people wouldn’t bother designing items because professionals are better at it. Even if the designs for every household item are freely available, people wouldn’t print them because it’s cheaper and easier and faster to order it from a factory, and it will continue to be that way forever.

    3d printers are nice for engineers and artists, but they are really not a mass production tool.

    • Stephen
      03. Apr, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

      I think you are being a touch short sighted.

      “…people wouldn’t print them because it’s cheaper and easier and faster to order it from a factory.”

      That’s assuming that 3d printers don’t become cheaper, easier, and faster than ordering from a factory.

      It’s quite easy to imagine people printing iPhone cases at home rather than buying them in the store. From there it’s just a natural progression to bigger and better things.

      What I do wonder about is if no one is going to make money out of this how is it going to gain traction? Is this the death of the capitalist paradigm? Do we need to start thinking about measuring success in non-financial terms?

  5. Aron
    05. Jan, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Reminds me of the Novel “Herr aller Dinge” from Andreas Eschbach. There one scientist invents a couple of machines that can literaly produce everything. He doesn’t want to sell them but to give them to humanity.

  6. John Stack
    06. Jan, 2013 at 2:16 am #

    Certainly things get commoditized; however, all of the related businesses (training, etc) expand. Also, while you might be against specialty printing, I think this will see the largest expansion.

  7. Daniel Koller
    06. Jan, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    … a well rounded piece about 3d-printing, but I don’t buy the conclusion that there is no money in it: I tend to see it as window of opportunity (now), before all the things get cheap or even free.

    • Joris Peels
      23. Jan, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      Yep, there is.

  8. DscheyH
    07. Jan, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

    I had to smile while reading. To some extent I can follow and agree. However, by all means there will be money in the next two decades until the technology and materials will be in such a good shape. Secondly, there will always be people who have not the time and muse to design or produce an object via 3D printing. Thirdly, as with each disruptive technology, we even cannot imagine which changes, new services and products will emerge from this.

  9. Chris
    19. Jan, 2013 at 3:00 am #

    currently the technology and materials available are crude at best. the only thing they’re good for is model making and tinkering. obviously nobody is gonna sit around and wait for hours when they can run down to the store and pick up a bag of 30 Red Solo cups. but what happens in 10 years from now when the machines become more complex and are able to mix different materials besides plastics. need a cell phone? hold on while I print 1 out real quick. need a PlayStation? credit card? tv? car parts? keys? guns? Sure thing. this technology has the long-term potential to radically overturn the structure of today’s society not just economy. at this point I think the monetary value of the technology itself should be the least of our concerns.

    • Joris Peels
      23. Jan, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      Chris, for the home 3D printers I would agree with “crude at best.” There are a myriad of industrial applications for 3D printing and hearing aids, hip rotator cups, parts for cars, impellers, industrial pumps, facial implants, heating ducts, UAV parts, parts on the Dreamliner and Airbus A380 and many more things are being produced with 3D printing right now.

      I would agree that there are many more material and strength limitations to parts than people seem to realize.

      I would also completely agree that the monetary value of 3D printing itself is of limited concern. I’m more worried that it will eliminate all value creation. And great point, “this technology has the long-term potential to radically overturn the structure of today’s society not just economy.”

  10. Sivam Krish
    19. Jan, 2013 at 4:01 am #

    Spot on Mate.

  11. Alex Lopez
    22. Jan, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    Use the machine to… make the machine that makes machines! Like asking a genie for 1000 wishes.

    • Joris Peels
      23. Jan, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      Or asking the genie for more genies. I’m always surprised at why nobody ever wishes that.

  12. David Alan Foster
    23. Jan, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    No money in it? Who cares? Get ready for a future with practically-free energy and UMMs.

    • Joris Peels
      23. Jan, 2013 at 8:43 am #

      And the flying cars, don’t forget the flying cars. In the future there always will be flying cars.

  13. A.M. Deist
    11. Mar, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    The money to be made with 3D printing is is the Medical and Dental fields. The good news is that it can be used to extend life. The bad news is that it can be used to extend life.

  14. James B
    15. Mar, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Not to rain on your parade but having read two of your post’s so far I can’t help but wonder if youve ever used or working in the 3d printing industry? Your articles addressign the future of 3D printing lack any merit of knowledge. Please understand I’m not trying to put you or your articles down but they are the equivelent of pie in the sky dreaming. You make no attempt in these type of posts to addess two of the biggest issues in 3D printing, a) resolution and b) speed. Either of these items would go a long way into eliminating articiles like this one. Printing material will not be cheap. Much like standard printers the manufacturers will realize they are the gatekeeps to their products and the printers are their gateway drug to their real product the printing material. At this time the two major approaches to printing are Laser Sintering and SLA (stereo lithography) stereo lithography is the future of printing, as laser sintering has a limit to its resolution to print head. SLA will only increase when the material prices decrease enought to enable true innovation. True plastics will not factor into the future of the tech, rather we will see advances in plastic types as well as advancements in other materials that will lower the cost and be much more eco friendly.

    Lastly 3D printing will never attain the level of success you talk about mainly due to cost per printing versus the value of items built in mass assembly where the output cost is amortized over the production to create items that have more value in energy / work into a item then the cost to make it as a single item.

    The level of complexity to create build and maintain a high level printer will still need constant calibration as well as cleaning. Most consumers are not accustomed to the labor involved in the process. THis is why in design they scale a items function to be usable en masse to the public.

    anyways just a few thoughts about the realities of 3D printing versus the dreams of people about the future. 50 – 60 years ago people envisioned flying cars, nevermind that the reality is that items that fly have a set of complexities that from mass to weight ration to lift and and power that are far beyond that of the automobile. It’s one thing to dream up some idea and or parrot others that dream similarly it’s quite another to step in and learn about the complexities and then look at the proposed future and what would have to happen to allow for that vision to be achieved.

    • Joris Peels
      25. Mar, 2013 at 9:51 pm #

      Uuum…I’ve worked in 3D printing a teensy tiny bit. I would completely disagree with you that the posts “lack any merit of knowledge.” Please don’t tell my customers.

      Resolution and speed are not the two biggest issues. The Blank Canvas Problem, design software, toolchain, materials, material cost, color, part durability, surface quality etc. are bigger issues. There are many ways to tackle speed also since cheaper machines for example can solve the same issue in a different way.

      Speed can be improved radically by leaving behind antiquated gantry designs and moving to more modern architectures such as robot arms, SCARA, Delta, rotating build platforms etc.

      I’m pretty sure that indeed many of the players have decided that their real product is the material to an extent. But, just because they believe this doesn’t mean prices will stay high. In a larger market and with more production oriented businesses won’t people look to more economical material? With a $500,000 machine with a high margin business model you might not want to get in trouble with your service contract but what about a cheaper machine? What if production is the true goal? Can’t we see that happening already in several 3D printing product families? Haven’t prices already come down significantly in some areas?

      It would be interesting to see stereolithography as the future of the industry. It depends on how you define stereolithography of course but I’m pretty sure a lot of people will disagree with you on that one. I once spent an afternoon sanding a SLA part and came to the conclusion that SLA was probably not the way to go. Also not terribly excited about some of the additives lets say.

      Also thermoset plastic is not recyclable (except as perhaps a filler for something). So how does SLA being the future rhyme with the eco friendly future?

      What do you mean with SLA and LS being the two mayor approaches? They are popular technologies but just one of many right? And more FDM machines are still sold worldwide. Also, almost all desktop machines are FDM.

      What do you mean with, “laser sintering has a limit to its resolution to print head?”

      How come material prices will stay high? Won’t others just start selling the materials also? Won’t higher volumes bring in more competition?

      How come true plastics will not factor into the future of the technology? I’m confused about this.

      With regards to the “cost per printing” I’m a bit confused by this as well. But, if I understand you correctly mass production will remain cheaper because the unit cost is lower. But, isn’t the main advantage of 3D printing that you have lower start up costs and so can make many more things with a higher specific design? So you could make individual things that function better or are more appealing to one person? Isn’t this entire technology based on its ability to generate unique objects relatively quickly and relatively inexpensively?

      Won’t it be possible to develop a machine that is easy to calibrate and clean?

      I am trying to dream up an idea and imagine a future but I try to base that upon what I’ve learned from working in the industry.

      Frankly I was quite annoyed by your tone and statements about my lack of knowledge. If this was your goal, congratulations. If however you did want to discuss some points I’ve tried to reply above. With all they hype I personally am particularly interested in people and opinions that deflate this hype.

  15. Trelles
    07. Jun, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    That part about dissolving mexicans? Not cool dude

    • Joris Peels
      07. Jun, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      My apologies. It is a joke at the expense of a huge humanitarian disaster.

  16. kraigsmyth
    10. Jun, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    Sounds good! Innovation is a slippery thing though, and I would not discount the
    exceptional value to people of the opportunies presented by this technology. There are ideas for this technology that are yet very undeveloped… some even undiscovered. Already, some of us are using it, and “a penny saved is a penny earned”, right? A fundamental change in the economics of manufactured goods does not mean the loss of that economic activity, just a change. So long as stuff gets made, the cycle continues… Just that the balance of investments, materials, production, shipping, and profit all change. Not all change is bad… Not for everyone, at least.;)


  1. Thinking outside the box: Mobile 3D printing and unlimited build volumes | VoxelFab - 03. Jan, 2013

    [...] There’s no money in 3D printing. [...]

Leave a Reply

Powered by WP Hashcash