Industry experts say 3-D printing could revolutionize traditional manufacturing, much as the Internet upended the music industry, and fundamentally alter how consumers shop and how much they pay. Some tech companies are already foreseeing a day when every home contains a 3-D printer churning out custom furniture and clothes, or a Kinko’s-esque store in every neighborhood where items can be manufactured on demand via printers.
It’s also raised concerns among law enforcement professionals, who worry that criminals will be able to print untraceable guns and other weapons at home.
“The billion-dollar question is, how big will this become and when?” said Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which tracks the industry.
“You see companies already making fashion garments and jewelry through printing. And we have seen demonstrations of 3-D printing food and living tissue.”
Wohlers said that by 2021, the U.S. market is estimated to hit $10.8 billion, up from $2.2 billion last year and $$1.18 billion in 2008. The industry has been growing, on average, more than 25 percent a year for the past decade. The consumer side, which is in its nascent stages, is especially ripe for growth, Wohlers said.
Tech companies are already salivating at the opportunities.
In June, 3-D veteran Stratasys Ltd., which for decades has made ultra-pricey printers for companies such as Boeing Co. and General Motors Co., announced plans to buy MakerBot, which specializes in affordable desktop printers. Rival 3D Systems Inc. launched two consumer-oriented models this year, the Cube ($1,299) and the CubeX ($2,499 and up).
Small-business owners have already taken to the printers.
John Hariot of Los Angeles, for one, is using a printer bought from Deezmaker to create prototypes, such as knobs for drawers, for his new cabinet-making company. He said the 3-D printer is a much cheaper option compared with the pricey rapid-prototyping machines he once had to use.