3D printing issues and challenges: 3D printers

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In this month’s installment on the issues and challenges surrounding the 3D printing industry, Jeremy Pullin asks: when it comes to professional and consumer 3D printers — what’s the difference?

There’s a question that has been bugging me for quite some time: how do you decide whether a 3D printer is a consumer or a professional machine?

Many people go by price, with a notional line drawn at $5,000. But that’s far from a satisfactory answer. You can’t simply use price to ascertain whether a system (or any product for that matter) is consumer or professional.

But it would be naive to ignore the link between bill of material costs and resale price thresholds. The price of many internal subsystems on professional 3D printers makes it impossible to sell that system at a consumer price. Don’t expect to see a 400 watt ytterbium fibre laser with optical train to appear on a sub $5,000 desktop system any time soon.

Of course, that does raise an interesting little point, which crushes the idea of consumers having the manufacturing capabilities of industry at home; cheaper systems simply do not have the same processing capabilities as their professional counterparts.

Another more serious problem with trying to use a $5,000 barrier is simply one of affordability. Let’s for a moment take a look at the spend in the consumer goods world.

Televisions, games consoles and home computers are all (generally speaking) a magnitude of ten down from what the so called ‘consumer 3D printers’ are priced at, and that’s no small difference.


For example, Nintendo offers its Wii U consoles for around £350. You don’t have to be a gaming industries guru to realise that they wouldn’t be such a high seller if they were priced at £3,500. Perhaps if you have the sort of disposable income that makes you so unfamiliar with budget airlines that you think Easyjet is a private mile high swingers club, then you wouldn’t blink any eye at shelling out $5,000 on a barely used home based curio. But, for the rest of us, that’s a lot of money that we wouldn’t part with lightly.

So, suddenly, the idea of differentiating classes of systems based on a notional price threshold of $5,000 just doesn’t cut it. Does the difference between consumer and professional systems then lie merely in capabilities?

If you go to the yardstick of fitness for purpose then a sub $5,000 system is quite capable of knocking out a few multicoloured napkin rings, some customised chess pieces and as many Yoda heads as you could reasonably be expected to handle.

Obviously some of these things are silly and trivial but there are many more which are truly impressive. So, although sub $5,000 systems do not have all of the capabilities of more expensive systems, it would be far from true to say that they can’t do any of what the more expensive systems can.

We couldn’t even argue that the difference lies in who uses the equipment because there are low cost (relatively speaking) desktop machines used by professionals all over the world.

So, if there is really no difference between the professional and consumer class of machines, should anyone be able to label their machines as consumer class as long as they cost less than $5,000? No, because there is a very real difference between consumer and professional appliances, of any kind, and there are criteria that qualify the difference between them.

Firstly, for a product to truly be a consumer product it should be priced at a consumer level. This means that it should be sold at a price where not only high earning executives can afford to have them in their homes but so too can an average salary earner.

I’m not talking about 3D printers being the same price as a tin of baked beans but I am talking about them being comparable to white goods, televisions, home computers etc.

Secondly, they need to be affordable to run. In this case you need to be looking at total system running costs (including materials), which are comparable to mobile phone contracts or satellite/cable TV contracts.

Although this cost criterion is vitally important, there is another very important differentiator between the world of consumer products and industrial products, which lies in the supply chain itself. Normally when somebody purchases a consumer product they are covered by support networks such as warranties, guarantees, 24 hour support lines or the poor person behind the till that you can moan at.

In the UK there is also the good old ‘Sale of goods act 1979’ which gives you statutory rights by law when you buy from a business. These legal rights include such gems as being entitled to a full refund for goods sold that are not fit for purpose if you return them within a short time. If you’ve kept the goods for a while the law says you may have accepted the goods and have lost your right to a full refund.

However, you should still have the right to get a repair or replacement. These are your legal rights which individual sellers cannot override with their own company policies.

We’ve got kind of used to this so when you hear horror stories of people contacting 3D printer manufacturers and being told that they operate a ‘non returns’ policy it doesn’t really fit the model at all.

Regardless of whether it’s a 3D printer, toaster or pair of shoes, a consumer product is one that can be afforded by the consumer, used by the consumer and, very importantly, instills peace of mind in consumers in the knowledge that they won’t be stranded with something that they can’t use with no chance of getting their money back.

Given all of the above, we can now see that there aren’t as many truly consumer 3D printers on the market as the marketing people would have us believe. It’s also clear that simply calling a product consumer rather than professional based on it costing less than $5,000 is just nonsense.

Jeremy Pullin on professional and consumer 3D printers – what’s the difference?

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