H.P. is among the first printing equipment manufacturers to indicate plans to produce commercial 3D printers.
wlodi/Flickr H.P. is among the first printing equipment manufacturers to indicate plans to produce commercial 3D printers.

The 3D-printing sector may soon get the (discernible) nod it needs from tech industry giants to begin production en-masse. In an interview earlier this month with Sydney-based Fairfax Media, Minoru Usui, president of global printer manufacturer Epson, said that his company is working on a 3D printer for large-scale commercial applications. The news follows comments by H.P.’s CEO Meg Whitman at a conference this past October that it, too, is gearing up to tap the 3D printing market—possibly as early as mid-2014.

While the details have been few—neither Epson nor H.P. has divulged a detailed timeline, target markets, or printing mediums—both announcements are among the earliest to indicate serious interest by manufacturers with the capacity to create economies of scale for the relatively new technology. Like Epson, H.P. is targeting the commercial sector with “high-quality 3D printers that can crank out customized products for your house or workplace or car” for use by print-service providers, writesWired reporter Robert McMillan in an article about the company’s strategy for approaching the new tech.

Lately, though, the 3D-printing market has been a magnet for hype and speculation. An October 2013 report by Stamford, Conn.–based tech consultant Gartner projects a 75 percent increase in 3D-printer shipments valuing less than $100,000 worldwide to 98,065 units during 2014 from 2013. The report forecasts combined consumer and enterprise spending on the technology to grow 62 percent to $669 million for the same period.

But the sizable percentage gains overshadow nominal volumes—something The Wall Street Journal's Ben Rooney followed up on with the report’s author.

“We are a long way from being able to go out, buy a printer, bring it home, expect to connect it to your Wi-Fi, and use it seamlessly,” Peter Basiliere, Gartner’s research director, told The Journal. But for commercial buyers, he notes, 3D printing is “in many respects, mainstream,” and is used in in the manufacture of parts and in facilitating research and development.

Gartner forecasts a 65 percent gain in commercial spending on 3D printers to $536 million in 2014 from 2013. The report also predicts that improvements to the technology will lower costs and improve the equipment’s efficiency, driving growth in the enterprise sector and significantly impacting industries such as consumer products, industrial production, and manufacturing. The technology is also anticipated to impact, though to a lesser degree, industries such as construction, medical products, and utilities.

The Atlantic’s senior technology editor, Alexis Madrigal, also noticed low unit sales across the board. He cut through the growth forecasts to pull third-quarter 2013 numbers for longtime 3D printing market leader Stratasys, which bought consumer-focused MakerBot in a near-$500 million deal earlier this year. The 5,925 units shipped by the company during the quarter—compared to 911 units during the year-earlier period—pale, he says, in comparison to the “slumping” personal-computer sector, which sold 80 million units during the quarter.

Still, realizing full market penetration for 3D printers depends on when—and to what extent—the tech hardware sector’s largest players, Epson and H.P. included, are ready to invest. Gartner reports that the technology will likely stay niche initially. So far, Staples and UPS are among the first printing service providers to offer 3D printing, while the list of manufacturers who use the equipment for product research and development continues to grow. In the meantime, expect the hype to continue as researchers and other innovators test the potential of the printing equipment and mediums to develop innovative products and solutions.

Photo courtesy wlodi on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.