What is 3D printing good for?
That’s a question that’s become increasingly relevant in 2015, as the majesty of showing off 3D-printed trinkets has seemingly led to nothing more than a great slogan for your latest Willy Wonka meme: “Oh, another 3D-printed Yoda head? How innovative.”
Signs of stress have infiltrated an industry that just a year ago was at the top of its game. Stratasys and 3D Systems, the giants of the U.S. 3D-printing industry, were soaring. Now one has experienced two rounds of layoffs in its desktop 3D-printer division, and the other has said farewell to a CEO, some employees, and the consumer 3D-printer market. The bounds of what 3D printing could do seemed limitless: Dresses! Food! Hammers! Now the main application of additive manufacturing technology—prototyping, mostly—is something you probably won’t brag about at your New Year’s Eve cocktail party.
3D-printing technology still appears too unreliable, too complicated, and too slow for mainstream adoption. The companies making investments in it are the ones with significant amounts of capital to purchase $100,000-plus equipment and train the personnel needed to operate 3D printers.
But despite these obstacles, 2016 looks promising for the 3D-printing industry. Here are five things to look forward to in the new year.
New Players: More companies are diving into 3D printing with attractive sales pitches. Xjet is planning to introduce an easier, cheaper way to print metal. Toshiba (TOSBF) and Autodesk are developing or have already developed their own 3D printers. And HP (HPQ), in perhaps its biggest gamble, will bring to market its Multi Jet Fusion printers, which are supposed to be able to print objects in a variety of colors and 10 times faster than current printers on the market today.
Faster Printers: Speed is key. Faster 3D printers means machines that become components of the manufacturing process instead of machines that designers and engineers use to build and test new parts. This is something companies new and old recognize. “It’s great news that new 3D printers are built and that manufacturers understand that speed is a key feature,” says Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of online 3D-printing marketplace Shapeways. “The faster they get, the more people will use them, which helps grow the market.”
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The ‘Golf Ball’ Rule: If it can fit inside a golf ball, it’s probably something ripe for 3D printing. That’s a rule attributed to 3D-printing software and services company Materialise, and it’s one that could make 2016 a breakout year for 3D printing. “Small, high-value items that need to be unique are the sweet spot,” says 3D-printing consultant Joris Peels. That means things like jewelry, hearing aids, and dental implants, but also tiny pieces of larger, manufactured items.
Multicolor Printers: One of the current limitations of desktop 3D printers is their inability, generally, to print one object in different colors. Widespread consumer adoption of 3D printing—desktop 3D printers in homes as opposed to schools or business—is several years down the line, if it happens at all. Having printers that could print in multiple colors could help. MakerBot and 3D Systems are already working on this. Look for others to do the same.
WATCH: For more Fortune coverage of 3D printing, watch this video:
Metal Printing: Out in Pittsburgh, aluminum giant Alcoa has a bold plan to develop better raw materials for metal 3D-printing. Stratasys (SSYS) and 3D Systems (DDD) are also pushing ahead with their own projects. If 3D printing is truly the future of manufacturing, then there has to be a reliable and cost-effective way to print metals.