If you have been looking at 3D printing as a way to get new customers into the door—as a funnel to engage with new target audiences for your print and marketing services—a new study from Michigan Technological University raises important questions.

According to the study, “Emergence of Home Manufacturing in the Developed World: Return on Investment for Open-Source 3D Printers,” an open source 3D printer (consumer model) can pay for itself within the first five years after purchase. Furthermore, the average consumer can make up to 1000% ROI by using the printer to manufacture a variety of products instead of the buying them outright.

The research was conducted by Joshua Pearce, associate professor at Michigan Tech, who used a RepRap 3D printer in the experiment. Based on the results, Pearce believes that 3D printers are ready for the mass market and that 3D printers can be used by “more or less every adult.”

The experiment used participants ranging from kindergarteners to adults with no 3D printing experience. Researchers asked them to set up a 3D printer and produce a variety of projects that might be used in a typical American household. The project used 26 free items selected at random from 3D file sharing websites, then compared the cost of producing those items on the 3D printer with the retail pricing to see how much money could be saved.

As reported by 3DPrintingIndustry.com, the average savings across all 26 items was over 90% when compared to both low-end (93%) and high-end (98.65%) equivalents.

For this study, the items were selected at random, so there is a question about how much they replicate how a 3D printer would actually be used in a home, although the study did include commonly used items such as an Insulin belt clip, a child’s toy, and an espresso tamper.

But the point isn’t whether consumers can save money on toys and clips. The point is the ease of which consumers (and by extension businesses) can now do their own 3D printing at home (or in-house) and, for our industry, the value of using 3D printing as a way to get customers in the door. If a child can set up a 3D printer, then potential clients can, too.

For business cases, however, it’s not the ease of downloading and printing from a pre-designed file that drives the need to outsource to an MSP or other 3D printing provider. It’s the design. If customers want a scale model, or to test the structural integrity of a new package, the costs and design challenges inherent in creating those files is what pushes them for outside support.  

But these costs aren’t cheap. In fact, they can be prohibitive, especially for first-time users or those who simply want to experiment with the opportunities provided by the technology. It’s not unusual for the design to cost more than the production. So while production may have become accessible to all consumers to use, in itself, this doesn’t bridge the gap between need and barrier to entry.

Until design becomes as easy and predictable as production, businesses and consumers will continue to need design support.  It is only the easy part — the output — that is going mainstream.

The takeaway? The Michigan Tech study may mean closing doors of opportunity for shops that want to do 3D output only, but continued (or even growing) differentiation for those who can tackle the design, especially for those who can do it cost-effectively.