3D printer price drops could lure home users

3D printer prices have fallen to less than $US500, but basic models can print only limited objects and colors

3D printer prices are dropping into a range that could appeal to home users.

A handful of 3D printers priced at less than $US500 were shown at the Inside 3D Printing trade show this week in New York. They can print small objects in limited colors, but prices of more advanced home 3D printers are dropping as well, opening up the market to a wider audience.

3D printing involves taking a filament like plastic and discharging it through a nozzle on a substrate to make parts, and has been used to make a range of items, including smartphone cases, toys, automotive and aeronautic parts, and even a space probe. 3D printing allows for faster and less expensive production of parts for such items, and designing and prototyping the parts becomes easier, said 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental during a keynote at the conference this week.

"We are observing companies are under increased pressure to deliver products faster," Reichental said. "For the price of one unit, I can make millions of units [with a 3D printer]."

Prices of 3D printers are falling at a fast clip, helped by technological advancements, the expiration of certain patents and increasing competition, said Tim Shepherd, senior analyst at Canalys Research.

"It is possible today to get low-end, relatively basic printers for several hundred dollars, where in the past they started in the thousands-of-dollars range," Shepherd said.

Canalys expects the 3D printer market to grow rapidly in the coming years, with sales of printers, materials and services reaching $US3.8 billion this year, compared to $US2.5 billion last year, and hitting $US16.2 billion by 2018.

Growth will be fueled when companies such as Hewlett-Packard enter the 3D printing market, Canalys said. MakerBot and 3D Systems are the most widely recognised 3D printing companies today.

XYZSystems is making a play for the home with the $US499 da Vinci 1.0, which was shown at the show. It has a single nozzle, meaning that it produces single-color items. The printer can make items measuring 200 x 200 x 200 millimeters.

The printer is for home users, hobbyists, students involved in science projects and teachers "who want to decorate their classrooms," said Phair Tsai, a marketing specialist at XYZSystems.

XYZSystems is part of Taiwan-based The Kinpo Group, which has made two-dimensional industrial printers for two decades. XYZSystems has been dropping prices on its more advanced 3D printers, but an introductory model was needed to penetrate the home market, Tsai said.

"Our goal is to lower the entry barrier for regular users, to instigate a conversation, to get users to start using 3D printing," Tsai said.

Solidoodle was another $US499 printer shown at the event. It has a single nozzle and can print plastic items that are up to 152.4 x 152.4 x 152.4 millimeters in dimension. The product is already shipping.

Advanced 3D printers supporting larger objects and more filaments are also dropping in price. The price of the X Objects' Up Plus has dropped to $US1500, compared to $US4000 when it was introduced three years ago, said Brian Quan, president of X Objects.

The Up Mini, which sells for $US880 on Amazon is the least expensive X Objects 3D printer.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it goes down even further in the next three months," Quan said.

BotObjects introduced ProDesk3D, priced higher at $US3249, but it is full color. It has five colour cartridges that allow users to blend colours when printing plastic objects.

The ProDesk3D is a "prosumer" device, for home or office use, said Mike Duma, chief technology officer and co-founder of BotObjects.

"We continue -- as with all the other 3D printer manufacturers -- on the path to improve the product and the design, and making the ... assembly more efficient," Duma said.

Some 3D printers suitable for home use so far have been used chiefly by hobbyists and early technology adopters. Inventors or entrepreneurs have been among the buyers of the $1,299 3D Systems Cube Easy Plug sold by 3D Heights. Company President Jerry Castanos is skeptical about 3D printers for everyday home use.

"I see it in the business side. Entrepreneurs, small business, a guy with his own storefront," Castanos said. "We actually had a few people in our neighborhood buy them to resell items on Amazon."

Castanos views 3D printers as more like copiers, with people going to the nearest store to have 3D objects printed, rather than doing that at home.

Home users of 3D printers have largely been hobbyists and early technology adopters, said Canalys analyst Shepherd, noting that there is a learning curve involved.

"These will really become 'products for home use' when not only the devices themselves become more affordable and easy to set up and use, but when greater numbers of consumers have been educated -- whether adults or children -- to use computer-aided design software to produce designs to print," Shepherd said.

Service and maintenance issues also add to the costs of 3D printers, and support packages are necessary, said Quan of X Objects. The filament is inexpensive, costing about $US50 or less for a kilogram, which is good enough to 3D print 350 chess pieces.

"You're going to see the technology dropping a lot, but it's never going to be as simple as a printer, because the printer has gone through years of development," Quan said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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