When personal 3D printers hit the market a few years ago, it seemed like it wouldn't be long before every household had its own, sitting right next to the laptop.
That dream has faded, thanks to a bad global economy, printers that can cost as much as a month's rent, and the lack of people who know how to use them. It seems like the fantasy of $100 printer should be put aside for now, since Stratasys Inc. already downgraded MakerBot and most 3D printing companies seem to be zeroing in on health care as their biggest and fastest-growing target.
3D Systems Inc., for example, recently joined up with a volunteer network that prints hands for kids who need them. The idea is that the collaboration will provide info it can use to build a prosthetic hand approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Lewis said.
3D Systems has worked on more futuristic projects—developing an exoskeleton with Ekso Bionics, making custom prosthetics for a dog—and also everyday partnerships: selling to hearing-aid labs, research labs, hospitals and medical-device companies.
3D printing was supposed to be the next big thing and, for a while, it was. Sales grew about 34 percent annually for the past three years, as everyone was transfixed by the idea of bringing printers to mass market.
Now, the stock value of the two juggernauts—3D Systems and Stratasys Inc—has plunged from $14 billion to less than $3 billion. Sure, the technology itself keeps moving ahead, but both companies are dealing with quality issues and, more worryingly, a market that consists of people frustrated at high prices and those who think it's cool but don't bother trying it for themselves.
"Consumer printing has grown a lot in interest, but now that the early adopters have already all gotten the first wave of 3D printers, there aren't enough people that have the skills and capability to create things that are compelling to print," said Sophia Vargas, an analyst for Forrester Research.
Meanwhile, business-to-business health care "is an area that is still holding up," says Stacey Witten, 3D Systems's vice president of investor relations. "It's been the fastest-growing vertical for us and a major point of investment." Health care revenue has been nearly doubling every year for the past three years, said Lewis, the CMO.
3D Systems isn't the only company making this push. Andiamo, based in the United Kingdom, prints orthotics for kids. EnvisionTEC has been successful making very small 3D printed parts for dental devices and hearing aids. Stratasys partnered with a group called Limbitless to make prosthetic arms for children, and with hospitals to print head molds for a fitted helmet called the CranioCap. It has sold printers to clinics and, with the University of Minnesota, won a Department of Defense grant to print realistic models of body parts to use for training Army doctors.
Jon Schull, founder of e-NABLE, the organization partnering with 3D Systems, says that these corporate partnerships will be symbiotic. "We are a non-profit that needs to be self-sustaining," he said, "and the companies believe that there's no question that this research, like with e-NABLE, is going to be really useful and companies will be able to make money from them."