Three years ago, the entire industry was bullish about the future of 3D printing. The future seemed astronomical, the possibilities limitless. The technology took over a floor at the Consumer Electronics Show and pundits were regularly discussing a future populated by 3D printers in every home like so many Star Trek replicators.
But things stalled. The industry has largely been considered a victim of its own hype, the promise of science fiction-esque technology while the consumer versions offered little more than plastic trinkets. When I spoke to the CEO of 3D printing pioneer 3D Systems earlier this year, he told me, “I don’t think the consumer business is real, because there’s no use for it.”
It’s a 180 for a company so invested in the consumer-facing side of the business only a few years back.
But the frontrunners have scaled back, and XYZPrinting has proven a rare bright light, coming from seemingly out of nowhere to lead the back in international 3D-printing sales in only a few short years. The company’s CEO Simon Shen is one of an increasingly few executives who still has good reason to believe in the future of desktop 3D printing.
“I believe that everyone will have a 3D printer at their home and office and factories,” Shen said during a recent visit to our New York office. “Just like the self-driving car, 3D printers will be everywhere in 20 years.”
Shen believes that the industry isn’t at a dead-end, so much as a holding pattern, waiting for the next major technological shakeup to get consumers excited again.
“Thirty years ago, more than 100 companies were making notebook PCs,” he says. “How many companies are doing it now? Probably not more than five. That’s the nature of competition. If you have resources, investment and new technology, you will survive and flourish. This is the nature of the evolving of the technology. We’re just waiting for the next evolution of the technology. If they can do it much faster, more precise and easier, that will bring more people to 3D printers. Not waiting for four to six hours for a print, but 40 to 60 minutes.”
The Taiwanese company’s success has been astronomical — or as close as one can get in such a still niche space. XYZ, a subsidiary of electronics conglomerate New Kinpo Group, launched in earnest three years ago, leveraging the corporation’s expertise in paper printing to take on the likes of MakerBot, finding success through a combination of low-cost devices and user-friendly interfaces.
This past year, the company has expanded to education, finally finding a foothold in China, where, accordingly to Shen, the DIY community isn’t quite as pervasive as in the States. The next step for the company, as with much of the competition, is moving into the professional and manufacturing spaces. “In the past two years, we’ve only focused on the consumer retail channel,” Shen says. “This year we started to focus more on educational channels. Next year, we’ll focus on the professional.”
If the company is going to succeed on that front, the executive explains, it needs to adhere to the same model that put it on the map in the first place — low price and simplicity — both elements traditionally lacking in 3D printing. “Our mission for our engineers is that the products must be very easy to use,” he says. “A-five-year-old kid must be able to operate it. They must be able to open the software, draw something and print it out.”
Until there, there’s always smart mirrors.