"If you're trying to manufacture with these machines, throughput is everything," Wohlers says. Using 3D printers successfully in a manufacturing setting will require better automation of both pre-processing and post-processing steps.
Cobb says Stratasys expects to cut total pre- and post-processing time for a typical print job in half, from 5 hours today to about 2.5 hours within the next three years, and for prices to drop from today's $15,000 for its entry-level professional printer to between $7,000 and $10,000 in that same timeframe. "In three to five years you will have the same capabilities for under $5,000," he says.
In the personal printer space, says Lewis at 3D Systems, prices will drop even further. "In the next year or two you will see us go past the $1,000 mark. In two years we'll be close to $500," she says.
How much the market will grow as prices continue to drop, and whether a mass market will ever emerge, is an open question. But as easy-to-use 3D design tools get better, and as shared 3D object libraries gain in size and sophistication, businesses and consumers may come up with new applications for the technology that haven't yet been envisioned. "3D printing is where the semiconductor business was in the 1960s," Wohlers says. "We know it is going to be big but we don't know how big."