The first hit on Google for “3d printing hype cycle” shows that we are still on the early part of Gartner’s Hype Cycle curve. 3D printing hasn’t moved much from the 2008 graph to the 2009 graph (see here for older graphs). To top it off, Gartner thinks it is 5-10 years before 3D printing is mainstream. Not very far from now.
What does that mean? I’m taking it to mean in 5-10 years 3D printers will be as common as laser printers, but only after the press says it isn't feasible. Everyone will know 3D printers exist and the tools to use them will be readily available (clip-art anyone?). Given that, I’ve got to wonder where companies like Ponoko and Shapeways will be. If it is trivial enough for anyone to make anything, where do these for-profit companies make their money? Five years isn’t much time. Most companies are just hitting their stride in 5 years. (This data backed blog entry and this older blog entry mention the 5 years metric, though I can’t find the original article where I saw that mentioned.)
I believe the answer to be successful will be in materials. These larger facilities are the only ones that will be able to keep on the cutting edge of the available materials and still be profitable. Mom and Pop shops won’t be able to afford the newer machines and materials nor will they be able to meet the scale demands for profitability. They will go the way of the local print stores.
The moral, if you’re looking to get into 3D printing as a producer, think about your exit strategy or how you’ll evolve. This tech adoption wave looks to be even shorter than desktop publishing was (about 10 years).