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How companies will convince you to buy a 3D printer

Lucas Mearian | April 9, 2015
What would convince you to purchase a 3D printer? Low price? Ease of use? A viable purpose? If so, then 3D printing start-ups may be on the right track.

What would convince you to purchase a 3D printer? Low price? Ease of use? A viable purpose? If so, then 3D printing start-ups may be on the right track.

While 3D printing's uptake has been impressive — a 33.8% compound annual growth rate over the past three years — the machines have yet to find a place beside the coffee maker on the counter.

"A general-purpose 3D printer will not be sitting on most kitchen counter tops," said Terry Wohlers, president of additive manufacturing research firm Wohlers Associates. "A food printer might in the future, but we don't yet know enough about how the market will respond to their availability."

A little more than a year ago, finding a 3D printer for less than $500 was hard.

Now, companies such a XYZprinting, with its sub-$500 da Vinci machines, are hoping to bust into mass-market adoption. Of course, that hasn't happened... yet.

As 3D printer prices continue to drop and their ease of use increases, uptake of "lower cost" machines has skyrocketed, although the nascent market remains small.

The market for low-cost desktop 3D printing — machines priced under $5,000 — was strong last year, according to the Wohlers Report. Sales grew by 82.5% to an estimated 139,584 units in 2014.

But most of those 3D printers are being purchased by companies for design, modeling, and prototyping, or by educational institutions.

"A much smaller percentage is going to 'geek dads,' hobbyists, and some do-it-your-selfers," Wohlers said.

But, if recent crowdsourcing campaigns are any indication, the consumer market is champing at the bit for something affordable and easy to use.

The $179 3D printer

For example, Tiko, a start-up based in Niagara Falls, N.Y., has boiled down the 3D printer to a simplified "unibody" design embellished with cutthroat pricing.

At only $179, the Tiko 3D printer has blown up on Kickstarter, leaving the original $100,000 funding goal in the dust and garnering more than $1.2 million in pledges after only eight days.

What makes the Tiko 3D printer unusual is that instead of using multiple rails on which a print head and print platform move while filament is extruded layer upon layer, this machine positions the print head at the end of a downward facing tripod. The tripod's arms move in unison to control movement of the print head, but the print platform remains in place.

When the Tiko is done printing, a flexible print platform disconnects, enabling easy removal of the printed object.

"With this simple shift in design, all the problems that came from separate rail systems disappeared," the company said in its marketing video.

Tiko also uses W-iFi instead of USB cables to connect to laptops and desktops running the CAD software needed for 3D printing. The company also came up with its own cloud-based software that allows users to print from mobile devices.


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