This morning 3D Systems announced “end of life” for their consumer 3D printer, the Cube 3… Cube 3 Discontinued and while parts and supplies will be available for some time, the refocus of 3D Systems into the higher-end educational and industrial applications is a reflection of the narrow profit margins for low-volume per vendor and lots of competition in the consumer space — not to mention that the expected “3D printer in every home” is not even close to reality.

It has been a hard year for consumer-level additive manufacturing in general.  And despite some record funding, additive manufacturing projects on Kickstarter such as Pirate3D have collapsed in a heap.  Solidoodle is rumored to be bankrupt Solidoodle out of money.  Several others also folded (Phoenix3D, MakiBox, supposedly Zeepro, etc.) and of course as mentioned above, 3D Systems has ended their consumer Cube line in favor of refocusing on educational and industrial markets.

This was as I predicted – the wave of startups brought chaos and fragmentation to the consumer marketplace though there are good choices to be had.  A problem remains — 3D printers, no matter what the make, are not just one more “D” in complexity than ink jet/laser paper printers on the desktop.

However, the educational applications are indeed great.  In the “STEM” field, the ability to create and then “print” designs as part of the overall learning experience is an important enhancement.  In a way, this is nothing unexpected – project-based learning has always been at the core of good teaching.  Learning about an electronic circuit is fine but getting the parts and making it actually work is another level of skill. The same applies to mechanical designs and 3D printing – as part of a larger maker space or even as a community resource.

So what is in store for 2016?  The Consumer Electronics Show in early January in Las Vegas will be one indicator.  I predict we’ll see substantive improvements and useful tweaks in consumer offerings, and I’m hoping that liquid systems, though still fussy, will continue to be refined and reduced in cost.  The “plug-and-play” 3D printer is not here yet and may not be soon, but I’m not giving up on the technology!

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