Hailed as the next big thing, last Christmas' 3D printers gather dust

A Da Vinci 1.0 AiO 3D printer is displayed at the IFA Electronics show in Berlin on Sept 2.
A Da Vinci 1.0 AiO 3D printer is displayed at the IFA Electronics show in Berlin on Sept 2. PHOTO: REUTERS

PORTLAND (BLOOMBERG) - Anne-Isabelle Choueiri gave her kids a 3D printer last Christmas when they were hailed as the next big thing. Almost a year later, it's been all but forgotten.

"It's been recycled as a bedside table," Ms Choueiri, a 39- year-old digital consultant in New York, said of her US$799 Da Vinci 1.0 AiO device from XYZprinting Inc.

The initial excitement for 3D printers in the home - producing toys and parts for broken gadgets and potentially becoming as commonplace as the PC - is wilting. Choueiri found her device fragile. And the results take time. A simple print of objects like a mini Eiffel tower or a lighthouse took two hours, and her kids, being kids, didn't wait around.

The flop with US consumers was partly to blame for a slump in the shares of the two top manufacturers - market leader Stratasys Ltd. and 3D Systems Corp. Both stocks peaked just after Christmas 2013.

Stratasys's MakerBot brand took a big hit. Its sales slid 57 per cent in the second quarter from a year earlier and the company said this month it would cut 20 per cent of its staff. Stratasys is down 63 per cent this year, after the stock had surged 13-fold in the five years through 2013. A year ago, 21 analysts tracked by Bloomberg recommended buying the shares. Today, only 11 do.

It's the same for 3D Systems, whose stock has sunk 61 per cent this year after a 35-fold jump in that five-year period. Just four analysts rate the stock the equivalent of a buy versus 12 a year ago.

Long used in manufacturing and prototyping, 3D printing reached consumers in recent years, as prices fell to as low as US$300. Even though the hobbyist market remained small, excitement about possible home use rose to fever pitch.

"There was a lot of hype and misinformation" about the devices, said Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, which has tracked the 3D printer market for 28 years.

"People want instant gratification, so if you expect to create something in the store and watch it print in seconds, that's not going to happen," said Michael Diamond, director of industry analysis for commercial technology at NPD Group.. Retailers have pre- existing models of what's already been created with them, he said.

Sales of printers to hobbyists may drop 18 per cent this year to US$112 million and aren't likely to reach the levels of last year's holiday season, according to IDTechEx Research. Home Depot has a few models available online and in fewer than 100 of its more than 2,000 stores, the company said in an e- mail.

Much of the 30-plus-year-old industry is concentrating on its primary market: industrial applications in the aerospace, automotive and medical fields. The manufacturers are also pursuing schools and universities around the world, some of which have government grants to install 3D printers, according to Rachel Gordon, an analyst at IDTechEx.

"The opportunity in our perspective is really from the enterprise side," said Rich Garrity, a vice president at Stratasys. "We are still some time away before we reach a tipping point in terms of consumer adoption."

Scott Hanselman, a programmer for Microsoft, bought two 3D printers this year. He made a Minecraft chess set using his Dremel Idea Builder printer that he paid US$999 for and calls the easier one to use. He also created a bracket for a vacuum cleaner with his other machine - a Printrbot Simple Metal - which he bought for US$599.

Mr Hanselman said that while he loves his gadgets, they have their quirks and one is sensitive to movement. The quality is affected simply when the air conditioning comes on or when his kids run by, he said.

"People see something new and amazing, and they think everything is the new iPad," Mr Hanselman said. "Not everything is going to be that big."

For those less gizmo-inclined, the time and effort needed to produce anything may outshine any pleasure derived from it. Ms Choueiri, the consultant and mother of two, said she thinks it's too early to call the devices consumer goods.

"In the end there was not much family fun and enjoyment," she said. If friends ask for her opinion, "I would tell them, 'don't buy one, they are not ready yet."'