3-D printer sales set to explode. So who is buying them?

The market for 3-D printers will balloon over the next few years. But who are these new customers? Factories? Schools? Families? Yes to all of the above.

Karis Hustad/The Christian Science Monitor
Leon McCarthy shows off the hand he printed using 3D printers during MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis' speech at the grand opening of the MakerBot store in Boston, Mass., Nov. 21, 2013

Libraries have long been considered a house of books. But for Wadleigh Memorial Library in Milford, N.H., its mission has evolved to include 3-D printers and eventually a full maker space

“Libraries are changing into spaces [where] you can create content, not just store content,” says library director Michelle Sampson. The Makerbot Replicator 2, the library's 3-D printer since August, is evidence of that change.

Children and adults alike have used the library’s 3-D printer to make plastic items such as cookie cutters, phone cases, and a replacement part for a broken toolbox. The library’s 3-D printer is available to everyone and, like its paper printer, costs a small amount to use.

Wadleigh Memorial Library is not alone. The shipment of 3-D printers worldwide is about to grow rapidly, according to research firm Gartner. Its forecast predicts that 3-D printer shipments will double annually for the next four years.

With 2,100-percent growth by 2018, who exactly will be buying and using all these new printers?

Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner and lead analyst for its forecast on 3-D printing, points first to heavy manufacturers in the automobile, aerospace, and consumer-good industries. Historically, 3-D printers have been used for research and development in these industries, especially for making prototypes. In the medical field, 3-D printers offer a cheaper way to produce devices requiring mass customization, such as hearing aids.

But of the 2.3 million 3-D printer shipments expected for 2018, 1.8 million will be "sold mainly to consumers,” says Mr. Basiliere. He considers consumer-grade printers to be anything sold for less than $2,500, as opposed to the more expensive industrial 3-D printers used by heavy manufacturers.

Some of these “consumer” buyers will be “makers” setting up small businesses in their garages or using a 3-D printer as one of their tools. Others are simply enthusiasts with $500 to $2,500 to blow on a 3-D printer and see its value in making household items, knickknacks, and gifts. And some are institutions, such as public libraries and schools, that see the printers’ educational benefit.

While the 3-D printer market will grow rapidly, it’s starting from very small beginnings. Approximately 300,000 2-D paper printers are constructed every day, while the number of 3-D printers produced this year is only 108,000. One of the largest inhibitors to greater adoption of 3-D printers is the absence of “a real compelling application that can only be made on a 3-D printer,” says Basiliere. He predicts such an application might be uncovered by 2016.

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