Do Not Ask What Apple Could Do For the Personal 3D Printer Sector . . .

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There is today an emergent Apple prophecy industry. It’s self-appointed task is to tell us what Apple will do next. Sometimes, it’s right (smart watches); most times, it’s pure conjecture (OLED’s in smartphones). Apple has almost $150 billion it could invest right now and it seems to be burning a hole in the collective pockets of the Apple prophets, although perhaps not in the pockets of Apple itself.

3D printing is among the cool new technologies that some believe are in Apple’s future. There is little doubt that Apple could own 3D printing if it wanted and turn it into whatever it wanted. Not just personal 3D printing: all of it. Measure Apple’s $150 billion against the market caps of 3D Systems ($5.6 billion) and Stratasys ($4.5 billion) and you’ll get the point.

So the interesting question is really not what Apple could do for the 3D printing industry – that much is obvious – but rather what 3D printing could do for Apple? Does Apple have any reason to move into a market whose financial rewards could be a drop in the bucket to their current revenues?

Apple may be seeking out the next iPhone or iPad, but such opportunities – true discontinuous innovation– aren’t easy to find. Not even for Apple. And for every iPad, there are plenty of Newton’s. Just because Apple is a successful firm doesn’t mean that every opportunity it pursues has to be worth billions now.

And, as it happens, personal 3D printing is worth billions. SmarTech forecasts that combined, personal 3D printing will clock up about $2.1 billion in sales by 2018. That includes equipment, services, software and materials. This sort of number does not seem to us to be too small for Apple to take them seriously.

There also appears to be a strategic fit between what Apple does well and the “essence” of 3D printing. We have three things in mind here: branding, retail and design.

Apple’s perfection in branding: Apple’s genius seems to be in perfecting existing technologies, adding value, and capturing market share through some of the world’s best brand management.

In the personal 3D printer market, Apple would find little opposition in this regard and could probably out compete everyone. Apple might be attracted to personal 3D printing by the ease in which it differentiates itself in a growing market.

More grist to Apple’s retail mill: 3D personal printer stores are now all the rage in the “Maker” community. Adding 3D printers to the products sold at Apple Stores is a way for Apple to capture revenues through leveraging the 3D printing meme in stores that have already proved their ability to squeeze every possible dollar of profit out each square meter of shelving.

Its no so much that Apple needs to add another product to its stores. But 3D printers are an image fit with the products that are currently in Apple Stores. Apple Stores are always packed with the kind of computer buyer who, if personal 3D printers are presented in the right way, might well become 3D printer buyers too.

Apple returns to its design roots: As SmarTech has pointed out before, 3D printing is more like desktop publishing than it is like word processing. That is to say, while just about everyone can use Word, it takes real design skills to do desktop publishing. Much the same can be said about 3D printing.

People don’t talk that much about desktop publishing any more, but it is still extensively used and generates large revenues. And during one of Apple’s earlier growth spurts, it was Apple’s preeminence in desktop publishing that drove it forward.

PCs never did all that well in the desktop publishing market for two closely related reasons. First, PCs were never all that design- or graphics oriented. Secondly, Apple worked hard to attract the design community, and it was quite successful in this strategy.

Apple’s legacy lives on in this regard. Apple’s desktop machines are still the favorites of the design community and SmarTech expects that a significant share of this community is going to have 3D printers in the next few years. Again this is a brand thing again; Apple can play this market from strength, bringing a name that designers have trusted for decades now.

An Apple-branded 3D printer could actually expand the personal 3D printing market. We stick with our forecasts, for the time being. But an Apple entry into the personal 3D printing could lead us to dramatically push our figures upwards as Apple presents the business case for 3D printing to its loyal followers