Sure, 3D printers sound cool–but are they ready to go mass market? A few signs point to yes.

There’s nothing quite like the Microsoft stamp of approval.

Recently, the famed tech juggernaut–now in the throes of an upcoming chief executive transition and a Nokia acquisition–announced it would carry 3D printing technology in 18 of its stores across the country. You’ll be able to buy the Makerbot at Microsoft’s Mall of America store in Bloomington, Minnesota, and at the Costa Mesa store in California, among others.

Shanen Boettcher, the general manager of the Startup Business Group at Microsoft sung the praises of 3D printers when I interviewed him recently. “The technology is becoming affordable and easy for consumers to use, creating a new opportunity that some analysts predict will reach $3.1 billion by 2016,” he said. “Many experts think 3D printing could help spark a manufacturing renaissance.”

And Microsoft isn’t just betting on Makerbot. It’s going whole-hog: According to Boettcher, Microsoft will also roll out 3D technology with other partners including 3D Systems, Afinia, Autodesk, Formlabs, netfabb, Stratasys, Tiertime, and Trimble.

Why all of the fuss? Boettcher claims the technology is spurring innovation in the small business sector. 3D printing is now much more affordable, removing a key barrier to entry. Plus, it gives Microsoft a new–and potentially valuable–business: The tech company can offer other businesses a way to produce rapid prototypes and replace the traditional injection molding and tooling.

As you might expect, there’s also a Microsoft connection: Windows 8 is the first commercial operating system to provide native 3D printing support through built-in drivers.

But Microsoft certainly isn’t the only retailer jumping on this trend. Staples now sells the Cube 3D printer. At BestBuy.com, you can purchase the affordable Afinia model. The question, though, is whether 3D printing truly is moving from the hobbyist garage into the mainstream small business market where it will finally thrive.

Mainstream Adoption?

Braydon Moreno is the CEO of Robo 3D Printer, a product that costs just $599. Moreno told me he thinks 3D printing is finally going mainstream because businesses are starting to see the advantages. It is yet another service small businesses can provide to customers.

Maker services also appeal to the consumer’s desire for personalized products. “Smart brands are aware that the way to offer personalized products is not to personalize your products for each customer, but to offer your customers the tools to personalize your products for themselves,” says Daniel Levine, the director the Avant Guide Institute, a business consultancy.

“Some terrific examples of this are NikeID.com, which invites customers to create their own one-of-a-kind sneakers; MyHeinz.com, which makes it easy for people to customize their own ketchup labels; and any number of banks, which now invite their customers to upload a personal image which is then emblazoned on their credit card,” he adds.

Just a Trend or Something Bigger?

In the best-case scenario, there might be something much deeper going on here. Gene Sherman, the founder of the makerspace Vocademy in Riverside, California, told me the main reason the maker movement is finally taking off has to do with a serious misunderstanding about industrial-level manufacturing.

“We made, invented, developed, and built the most important products on earth,” says Sherman. “We are a country of innovators and hands-on people. But over the last two decades, academia has tried to convince all of us that the skills are no longer necessary nor valuable. Making is not going mainstream, it is coming back to take its rightful place as mainstream.”

Will the trend explode? Here’s my two cents. In the past, 3D printing equipment was too expensive, bulky, and complicated. The latest models have done an excellent job of solving the first two problems. As to the third, well, I’m heading down to the Mall of America next week to see a demo. Stay tuned.


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