MakerBot, an early leader in 3-D printing, threw down a gauntlet at the Consumer Electronics Show, held this month in Las Vegas. The company announced several products, including mobile apps, a digital store and three printers, but standout was the price break on the new MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer.
At $1,375 -- at least $1,500 less than previous lower-end MakerBot products -- the printer designed "for everyone" has a price tag that shows vendors have become more aggressive when it comes to the home 3-D printing market. Some experts and consumers say, however, that price isn't the only thing that needs adjusting for 3-D printing to reach the average Joe or Jane.
"The lower the price goes, the bigger the available consumer market gets," said Bob Parker, group vice president at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Manufacturing Insights. "I still think, though, that [3-D printing] is still at a sort of hobbyist phase. As the price goes down, more people will want to 3-D print as a hobby, and eventually, we're going to see more commerce." Lower prices will also put 3-D printers in more colleges and vocational schools as learning tools for student designers, according to Parker.
Hobbyist finds 3-D printing has home, business uses
Eric Bishop is a member of the growing community of 3-D printing hobbyists that Parker references. His earliest foray into 3-D printing involved a secondhand MakerBot Cupcake CNC, the first printer sold by MakerBot, back in 2009. Bishop was never able to get the printer to work properly, an issue he attributes to the secondhand nature of his kit, rather than to the printer itself.
Today, Bishop uses another brand, the Solidoodle 3, for his home printing needs -- even printing out a replacement piece for his coffeemaker -- and for his business, Gargoyle Router, which offers wireless routers with custom, open-source firmware and 3-D printed custom router enclosures. Despite his previous issues with MakerBot, however, Bishop still thinks its printers are worth considering.
"One obvious advantage of the MakerBot Replicator is that it has higher resolution. A lot of 3-D printer manufacturers will provide the Z-axis resolution, or 'layer height,' as the single number that determines the resolution of their printer. However, this does not take into account the accuracy of the X and Y axes, which can vary considerably between printers," Bishop said. "Just by looking at the quality of Solidoodle prints versus Makerbot Replicator prints, I could tell that the X/Y resolution of my Solidoodle is worse than on the Makerbot Replicator, even though the Z axis resolution of the printers is about the same."
Price changes not enough to boost home 3-D printing
Lower prices alone won't be enough to make consumer use a reality, according to Parker. It will also require Internet providers to improve their networks enough to handle the influx of data transfers from millions of consumers downloading and printing 3-D products.
Bishop also believes printer price is not the only thing stopping the average consumer from purchasing one.
"In order for a 3-D printer to be useful to a prospective customer, that person must either be able to design 3-D models themselves, or there have to be 3-D models already available for the majority of things that customer wants to print," he said. As an example, Bishop points to MakerBot's Thingiverse site, which allows users to upload and share 3-D models. In recent years, similar model-sharing sites have emerged, including YouMagine and CubeHero.
"However, even with the large number of models currently available, the average person isn't likely to find enough 3-D models to print to justify the cost of a 3-D printer," he added.
Another barrier is the math involved in designing 3-D models, according to Bishop. "Designing a useful 3-D model usually involves a certain amount of math, in particular geometry. … The vast majority of people do not enjoy math and will go out of their way to avoid it. User-friendly design software will not solve this problem, because most people will still see such software as requiring too much math to be worth the effort," he said. "These people will never design their own 3-D models and are never likely to buy a 3-D printer unless a much, much larger number of 3-D models become available."
3-D printing is also limited by the very materials currently affordable to consumers -- namely, relatively cheap plastics, Bishop said. "Within the next three to five years, someone is going to figure out how to print metal cheaply and reliably," he predicted. "When consumer-level 3-D metal printing is finally possible, that will open up a huge number of new applications, because with metal you could make things just as sturdy but with less material, and therefore smaller. Also, metal conducts electricity, which means that a 3-D metal printer could print custom circuits."
While we're still some years away from 3-D printers being in the average American home, Parker is confident that that day is approaching -- and when it arrives, it will have a profound impact on the consumer market. "Think about when the home 3-D printer becomes a delivery mechanism. There's going to be an inflection point where people go on Amazon and have the choice between 'delivery' or 'print at home,'" he said.
"When there starts to be a real commerce infrastructure for these devices, I think we'll see a greater market for home 3-D printing," Parker added.
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