Tuesday was MakerBot's big day at CES -- the day it unveiled its Replicator 2X 3-D printer, the machine designed to put the means of manufacturing right in your living room.
You can already buy a Replicator for $2,199 a pop at the company's first-ever retail store (pricing for the next-generation model is still under wraps). The Manhattan outpost, which opened in November, is a sure sign that 3-D printing is inching ever closer to the mainstream. But with prices ranging from $500 to more than $2,000 for the hardware, and $50 a kilo for the plastic filament cartridge (enough to "print" about 50 coffee mugs), will it ever get there?
How 3-D Printing Works
A 3-D printer is essentially a way to make many copies of a single plastic item without expensive molds and injection machines. All you need is a 3-D design on your computer -- either one of your own, or of the 25,000 free downloads available on MakerBot's thingaverse website.
To print an object, whether it's the aforementioned coffee mug or a new case for your iPhone, the printer takes a spool of plastic filament, melts it through a nozzle, and spits out the object layer by layer until, lo and behold, your mug is complete. A relatively simple coffee mug takes about an hour and a half to print.
There's obvious appeal for design geeks and small businesses, who right now make up the majority of buyers. The market volume for these systems is around 40,000 this year and is projected to be something like 200,000 next year, according to Professor Richard Hague, a British expert in additive manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. Investors are already taking notice: public companies that make these contraptions like Stratasys (SSYS) and 3D Systems (DDD) are poised for big growth in the new year.
Internet entrepreneur Tom Nardone of Birmingham, Mich., is an example of an early-adopter type who got his Makerbot Replicator in May for $2,008 to use in a side business making everyday items like back scratchers and shoe lifts. "I wanted to be on the leading edge," he said.
The process is not without its glitches. "It is definitely not easy to use, nor quite hassle free," he said. "It takes a long time to print something, and often the printing goes wrong."
To add insult to injury for the common consumer, the 3-D printer may not even net much in the way of savings, according to Phil Reeves, the managing director at Econolyst, a 3D printing and additive manufacturing consultancy in Derby, U.K.
In Reeves's experiment using the $1,400 MakerBot Replicator 1, the cost of making a small item is still relatively high. Taking into account the cost of the raw material, electricity and machine depreciation, a typical four-inch figurine would cost about $10 -- more than buying it in a store, to say nothing of the time and effort involved. (If you want to figure out how much your dream item would cost, you can upload a CAD file here, and check the price.)
But at the end of the day, it's not simply about the economics.
"[3D] printing is significantly more expensive than buying a molded part," Reeves said, "but that ignores the emotional, educational and cultural benefits of printing it at home .... There is a certain value and cachet associated with the immediacy."
Jenny Lawton, MakerBot's chief of strategy and the head of the company's store, points out that the comparative advantage of 3-D printing is the unique quality of the product": "You can make things that you can't get anywhere else."
Yours, and Yours Alone
That type of customization may be the true advantage of having a 3-D printer.
"People are already incredibly concerned with customization," noted Olaf Diegel, a professor of mechatronics at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. "When you buy an iPod, the first thing you do is get a flashy silicon sleeve, throw a Hello Kitty label on it -- anything you can to make it your own."
3-D printers allow the common consumer to take that personalization to the next level. For instance, you can customize the ergonomics, so your iPod can fit perfectly in your hand or your headphones snugly in your ears.
For his part, Reeves believes that 3D printing will one day change the patterns of our consumer society -- but only when the technology becomes cheaper and easier to use.
In the meantime, our friends at Engadget said it best: "The Replicator is about novelty and the mere cool factor of having a product that can print out just about anything you can imagine. By those standards, this thing is downright amazing ... Casual consumers should wait for a future version. For tinkerers and hobbyists, however, it's $2,000 well-spent."
See the Replicator in action here.