For a long time, 3D printers felt like a distant future, an item reserved only for the brightest of minds and fattest of wallets. But this is not so different from the first generations of computers, and now we’re beginning to see the advent of the affordable 3D printer making its way into consumers’ lives.
So the big question is, what exactly will we use it for?
Last year’s CES showcased competitors offering low-end models as well as high-end professional desktops. Taiwan-based XYZprinting—a new entrant—revealed their Da Vinci 3D printer with a starting price of just $499, about the same cost as a color laser printer from a few years back. It’s a simple plug-and-play design for small business and personal use, and a far less exclusive price tag.
But is it really worth investing just to print your own iPhone case, earrings, or chess set? Unless you’re a designer—for whom there are hundreds of useful things the 3D printer can do—we’re still discovering what most consumers will really get out of it beyond mere novelty.
Currently, on the higher end, the ChefJet 3D printer and the ChefJet Pro cost between $5,000 and $10,000. There is also Solidoodle’s 4th generation printer priced at $999, and MakerBot’s compact Replicator Mini for $1,375. Other 3D printer companies are aiming for models that will be priced under $1,000. But as they get aggressive in their pricing to gain market share, we can see these printers selling below $500 in a year or two. But the question will remain: What is the purpose of owning one?
The lion’s share of the business isn’t in home 3D printers; it’s in the business market, and the ability to print spare parts, or complete parts without requiring assembly, and complex inner structures too difficult to be created by any other machine. 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture just about anything in only five to ten hours, and this capability would especially come in handy for product parts that can take days to locate and ship otherwise. Imagine this: A key piece of equipment breaks and your repair technician can simply print it for you right then and there.
3D printing has attracted a lot of interest, but it’s still in its infancy. We’re feeling our way around the concept and finding where it sits in our lives; whether that’s on our work desks at home, or in our local hardware store remains to be seen. But either way, it will be there.
Photo: MakerBot Replicator 2, by Creative Tools