By Mindy Haidle
I recently attended Maker Faire, just outside of Manhattan, on behalf of the Microsoft Consumer team at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. With no significant previous knowledge of “maker” culture or 3D printing, the whole event floored me: Eight-year-old girls built LEGOs, and teenage boys scanned avatars for 3D models. Mothers explored 3D trinkets, and farmer dads debated farm hacking methods. Hipster couples swooned over jousting clowns, and geeky developer types ogled rocket ships.
The palpable energy of the event, the enthusiasm of its 75,000 attendees and the independent, by-the-people-for-the-people mindset all surprised me; I’d never quite witnessed the overlap of the DIY and tech cultures in America, but they were alive and well in Queens for Maker Faire. While there were scores of technologies present, 3D printing definitely took the cake for presence. (See this recent post from my colleague, Lacretia Taylor, on five key maker trends.)
The whole affair left me wondering: Is 3D printing really a new consumer movement or just a geeky fad? Below are my observations on 3D consumer adoption based on Maker Faire New York 2013:
Hunger: The key driver behind consumer “hunger” for 3D printing is getting to choose between mass production and customization. Maker Faire speakers repeatedly said, “3D printing puts the means of production in the hands of the people.” This aligns directly with what Seth Godin describes as the death of the mass marketing “bell curve;” all audiences are now niche. Customization is critical. However, this does assume that the majority of consumers would rather create than purely consume—this is a jump.
Better Tools: Three different keynote speakers mentioned this phrase: “better tools.” Speakers noted that this is true in all areas of innovative technology: Consumers want better tools to do both basic and complex tasks. One speaker on the Farm Hack panel noted that when you are able to customize tools you’re your own needs, the tools are inherently better. When a large company is customizing a few tools for the masses, the benefit is diminished. At Maker Faire, consumers like the idea of creating, using and manipulating those tools themselves—at least some do. This is one piece of the “maker” movement that it will be interesting to watch whether it catches on—some people still like going to the store to buy things and think of it as easier than having to buy the printer, the raw materials and maintain any tech glitches.
Printing for the masses: Right now 3D printing is not mainstream; I don’t know a single person who owns a 3D printer, but—after attending Maker Faire and reading countless news articles about the movement—I have to assume that will change dramatically in the next five years. Even Project Runway finalist Justin Leblanc created jewelry from a 3D printer on the most recent episode of the reality TV show. “By all evidence, 3D printing has reached its inflection point, when it moves from the sophisticated early adopters to people who just want to print something cool. Soon, probably in the next few years, the market will be ready for a mainstream 3D printer sold by the millions at places like Walmart and Costco. At that point, the incredible economies of scale that an Hewlett-Packard or Epson can bring to bear will kick in. A 3D printer will cost $99, and everyone will be able to buy one.” (Wired)
Death of Retail: If 3D printing becomes mainstream, as many predict it surely will, some experts, like John Hornick (a leading legal IP expert), assert that retail stores will die and the black market production of goods will skyrocket: “IP will be ignored, and it will be impractical or impossible to enforce if you can print things away from control.” (NetworkWorld)
Cost and fear: The biggest perceived barriers for consumers are cost (which will—like personal computers and graphing calculators—go down) and fear around what the public might choose to print, with guns being the number one concern. As Kyle Chayka recently wrote in TIME (excerpted from his upcoming book on gun control and 3D printing): “There is a moment forming today in the world of technology as the tools that we use are increasingly displacing ordinary sources of authority.” However, consumers don’t seem as concerned with how this might affect the economics of the retail industry.