A few years ago, 3-D printing was the hottest topic around, MakerBot was the company to watch and founder Bre Pettis was a tech rock star.

How times have changed. Now MakerBot has laid off 20 percent of its staff but more significantly, it has shuttered its three retail outlets. It appears that 3-D printing has gone through a classic Gartner hype cycle, from the peak of inflated expectations to where we are probably today, in the "trough of disillusionment." In fact, 3-D printing is alive and well and being used to make everything from bikes to jet engines; it's the retail market for the home printer that's in trouble, and I think there are a couple of reasons why.

3-D printing has long been the playground of hobbyists and tinkerers, with all kinds of machines available in kits and plans on the Internet. MakerBot tried to turn them into consumer-friendly tools that people would have at home, just like they have a computer 2-D printer. MakerBot tried to make it useful by introducing scanners and easy-to-use software. They opened the stores to expose the public to the concept and the tools in a less geeky way than the open-source Internet world operates.

The trouble is, people still don't know what to do with them, and they aren't very good at making useful things. I thought that we were still in the early stages of a revolution, but that it was way too early to depend on them. I compared it to the early days of computer printers:

In 1983, not many people knew what to do with computers, other than try and replace things that they had like typewriters and slide rules. The dot-matrix printers were really crude. For anything of higher quality when you wanted to print a document, you took your disk to a printing house. Then when laser printers became affordable, we only took color jobs to the printing house. Now we do color laser in house. This took thirty years.
But the problem goes deeper than just being early and the machines being low-resolution, at the dot matrix stage. A 2-D printer produced something we had a real use for, but the consumer-level 3-D printers don't make much beyond toys. Ruben Anderson, who used to write for TreeHugger, notes that manufacturers with professional tools will always do a better job than a consumer product, and that people are going to be making a lot of junk. In a response to my post he writes "Making objects that are useful and pleasing to humans is very hard. Making blobs of plastic that are quickly thrown away is easy."

Alexandra Lange, in a wonderful article about how 3-D printers have a lot to learn from the sewing machine, wrote about MakerBot's Thingiverse and their stores:

...a skim of the offerings suggests not so much items not on the market, or even items desperately needed, but items to show off that you 3-D printed something. Vases, figurines, intricate and unwearable wearables. Why spend the time or money? Even at the MakerBot showroom in Boston, they showed nothing that was useful (a jet-pack bunny) and few things that were beautiful (honeycombed Easter eggs). All objects, no problem-solving.
3D printing output at CES

This is what they display as output of a 3-D printer at the Consumer Electronics Show: plastic junk. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

This is the crux of the issue: we still are at the hobby stage, and not at the problem-solving stage. There is huge future for 3-D printing and other technologies; back in 2007, before there were any consumer 3-D printers available, I thought they were going to revolutionize the way we buy things, that they were going to open up a whole new world of design options. I thought we were heading to a time when we would use computer-controlled printers, routers and other tools to pick the best in design from around the world and manufacture it locally on demand.

We will download design on demand.  It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary. In a world where we watch our carbon as closely as our waistline, we don't want to be driving to the big box stores; in a world where almost everything can be digitized, why move material when we are interested in ideas, creativity and talent?
I still believe this will happen, that we will go to a local 3-D print shop the way we used to go to Kinkos and print out what we need instead of trekking out to IKEA. But we're just getting started. Perhaps MakerBot just jumped into the pool before it was filled.

Related on MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Reality check for 3-D printing as MakerBot closes stores
Makerbot was a leader in consumer 3-D printing, but not enough consumers were biting.