Emerging Markets is a Frontier of 3D Printing

On its surface, 3-D printing seems like a failed gamble. Technologists once envisioned that it would open a world of opportunity: Simply input the design, spool up the 3-D printer, and sit back to watch as your imagination became plastic. However, due to a range of economic and practical factors, 3-D printing has yet to find the widespread successes that some may have hoped for.

Still, it’s too early to call 3-D printing a failed technology. Instead, 3-D printing offers some unique opportunities for entrepreneurs interested in expanding into emerging markets. To succeed, however, startups will have to pivot to more specialized uses — such as printing apartments to address rising housing demand or prosthetic limbs for amputees.

The flaws of consumer 3-D printers.
For consumers, avoiding 3-D printers is a logical decision. They’re tricky, temperamental machines which require a lot of special knowledge and care — and more time and money than the average person can afford. Even hobbyists enroll in shared makerspaces rather than buying their own machine.Consider how much work it takes to effectively use a 3-D printer. A team at Mashable experimented with 3-D printing — to their dismay. First, the printer was finicky about what types of files it accepted; the team had to convert their design into several file formats before finding the right one. Next, the device wasn’t exactly forgiving; any mistakes required an immediate do-over, which wasted plastic, time, and electricity. Six attempts and 24 hours later, the team finally gave up.

The challenges of emerging markets.
But for all its annoyances, 3-D printing does have promise for emerging markets — which might seem counterintuitive. After all, if richer nations reject 3-D printers, why would it be any different in less prosperous ones?

Yet first impressions are misleading. In emerging markets, 3-D printing technology is expected to become a $4.5 billion industry by 2020, growing by some 37.4 percent between 2014-2020. Most of this growth is expected to take place in India and China.

So what gives? The appeal of 3-D printing lies in its potential to solve several lingering problems common to emerging markets. The most common issue is an infrastructure gap (a lack of roads, medical clinics or schools); by nature, these projects require plenty of capital, time and skilled labor, all of which emerging markets may lack.
As a result, 3-D printing can be a shortcut. Not only does it build durable, workable solutions for far less money — but it is also a form of leapfrogging, where emerging markets can take advantage of exciting new technologies (such as blockchain) while bypassing early stages of development.