Do Consumers Care About 3D-Printed Products? « Fabbaloo

What do consumers think of 3D printed products? (Source: Fabbaloo / LAI)

Markforged survey looks at the average American’s attitude toward additive manufacturing.

“Cool cellphone case!”

“Thanks! It was injection molded!” said no one ever.

Of course, if it was a 3D-printed cellphone case, that might be worth noting. Despite being around for decades, 3D printing is still a novelty for many consumers. Whether or not they also see it as practical—or even appealing—is another question, one that a recent survey from Markforged could answer.

Collaborating with Dynata, a provider of market research and related services, the company surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults to gain a better understanding of how consumers perceive 3D printing in manufacturing and whether they recognize its potential benefits. More specifically, the survey participants were asked about their views on using 3D printing for reshoring and improving supply chain resilience.

Additive Manufacturing Awareness

While there are a number of interesting results from the survey, one that stands out in particular from the outset is the level of awareness among the general public around 3D printing as a potential solution for addressing supply chain issues. Asked whether they’d heard of 3D printing technology being used to address supply chain issues, 39 percent of respondents reported that they had.

Although there were more people who reported being unaware of this possibility (at 51 percent), Markforged principle public relations manager, Sam Manning, was pleasantly surprised by this result. “I thought those numbers would be a lot lower,” he says. “I didn’t think general consumers were that aware of additive and 3D printing.” Manning suggests that this level of awareness may be a result of the technology being showcased through various media and entertainment sources. One recent example is the Netflix reality series, Hack My Home, which features a 3D printer in the show’s design lab.

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Of course, awareness of 3D printing as a potential solution to supply chain issues is not the same as understanding the technology itself. “You either educate consumers or they educate themselves,” observes Manning. “When they’re waiting two or three weeks for things to come after getting used to Amazon delivering the next day, they’ll notice something’s wrong (with the supply chain) but we need to do more to educate them about why 3D printing could be a solution.”

The additive manufacturing industry has been diligently educating the primary users—manufacturing engineers—about what the technology can and can’t do, but considerably less ink has been spilled on educating general consumers. “Manufacturing still has a lot of work to do on educating the general population about what’s going on in terms of reshoring, as well as setting expectations,” says Manning. “We still have a long way to go as an industry when it comes to communicating what is and isn’t feasible.”

3D Printing at Home and On Demand

Further to Manning’s point about educating the general public, there are two results from the Markforged survey that stand in stark contrast to one another. Both are about where 3D printing technology is or should be used. On the one hand, only 22 percent of respondents reported using a 3D printer to create a replacement part or another object at home. In contrast, 77 percent of respondents said that they believe 3D printing can be useful in easing supply chain issues by printing items on demand.

What are we to make of this difference?

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One rather cynical explanation would be that these results mirror each other because those who have 3D printed replacement parts or other objects at home have enough familiarity with the technology to be skeptical about its viability as a solution to supply chain issues. In other words, ignorance about the technology breeds unwarranted optimism.

Fortunately, while this explanation might appear to fit the data, the respondents who answered “Yes” and “No” or vice versa for these two questions would have to be the exact same for the inference to hold. Manning confirms that’s not the case, and instead offers a different explanation:

“There are so many different additive technologies, so many styles of additive that can solve very complex problems with the supply chain. At the same time, the discussion around supply chain has been going for a while now and everyone has an opinion, whether or not they’re actually educated on the matter.”

Investing in Additive to Address Supply Chain Issues

There’s one last result from the Markforged survey that’s worth noting. Asked whether governments and businesses should invest more in 3D printing technology to address supply chain issues, more than half of the survey participants answered “Yes” (56 percent). Whether they have personal experience with it or not, the majority of consumers believe that governments and businesses should be investing more in 3D printing.

Asked about what kinds of investment would be most valuable, Manning pointed to the Michigan-based non-profit Automation Alley. “They recently launched Project Diamond,” says Manning, “where the goal was to get 120 3D printers on 120 different factory floors—mostly contract manufacturers—so they could learn how to use these machines for their own benefit. That was government-funded, based on a grant of around $4.5 million.”

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This brings us back to the point about education: the only way 3D printing can solve problems with the supply chain is if there are users who understand how to leverage the technology. The best way to do that is with hands-on experience. “As we are training the new engineers of the future, they need to be able to think additively,” says Manning. “It’s a skill just like learning a new language.”

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