3-D Printers for the Home: Are They in Our Future?

Reviewing the cost of a 3-D printer will determine if it's a justifiable expense and a desirable solution.

"Perspectives" is a column co-authored by Terry Wohlers. The following was published 
in the June 2001 issue of Time-Compression Technologies magazine.

Three-dimensional printers are available at a fraction of the price of high-end rapid prototyping equipment, and these prices are expected to decline. For example, BMT (Germany) is gearing up to offer its DeskModeler printer for 19,000 euro (about $16,500), which is a simple and straightforward concept based on an HP 895 ink jet printer. Another alternative from Solidimension (Israel) is a desktop device based on plastic lamination, which will be introduced soon. At press time, the company had not yet set a price, but it is expected to be lower than anything else on the market. Indeed, prices for 3-D printers are headed in the right direction.

A desktop device based on plastic 
lamination from Solidimension.

In the future, the actual cost to manufacture a 3-D printer will be a little more than its 2-D counterpart. A review of the devices from Germany and Israel shows that each contains few components - none of which are expensive. This low-cost simplicity also is true of the machines from Z Corp. (Burlington, MA). If these companies could manufacture and sell thousands of units per year, they could easily lower the sale price from five-digit to four-digit figures. With annual unit sales in the tens of thousands, the machine price could then drop even further to just three digits. At this price point, a significant percentage of the U.S. population would be able to afford a 3-D printer. But, is it a justifiable expense and a desirable solution?

The Cost Factor

The difficult question is not if consumers could buy a 3-D printer, but whether or not they would buy a 3-D printer. The benefits of owning such a device will provide the answer. And just what benefits will average homeowners receive when they purchase a device that builds objects in three dimensions - and one that costs only a few hundred dollars?

Some people argue that if these cool little devices were available, Mom, Dad and the kids would download 3-D model data from the Internet and build products at home. With no reliance on manufacturing companies to build the product, there would be endless opportunities and plenty of instant gratification.

This scenario is filled with speculation and laced with fantasy. In nearly every case, it would be unrealistic for the consumer to produce 3-D parts. The balance of time, money, convenience and quality is essential in most decisions and it is unlikely that home-based 3-D printers will deliver this desired balance.

In the future, 3-D printers may be able to produce some parts (even complete products) that one might otherwise purchase at a store - such as tape dispensers, baseball bats, dinnerware and picture frames. However, in most cases, it would be impractical to produce these items with 3-D printing because in less time than it would take to print the item, you could purchase one from a local store. In other words, it would not be worth the time, hassle and material to find what you want on the Web or produce it with design software and print it out.

Wouldn't it be handy to have a 3-D printer available should something break? What could be simpler than printing out a replacement part directly from the manufacturer's design data? It sounds like a good solution, but there are major limitations - when building new products, time is a factor. Many would find it more convenient to log onto the Web to find the replacement part and order it for next day delivery. There also is the issue of color matching. Simple RGB color is incapable of providing an exact match to a specified color, and any imbalance in the device's coloring system will further detract from the match.

The Consumer

Some individuals will justify the purchase of a low-cost 3-D printer, but these people are not typical consumers; they are practicing professionals working from their homes. As designers, engineers and consultants, they also are some of the same people that use RP technology today and they do not represent a new market, but rather the expansion of an existing one.

These designers could use a 3-D printer to minimize their reliance on a service provider to eliminate delivery delays. Before they purchase their own printer, however, they will use the services of a 3-D print shop - similar in function to a Kinko's copy and printing center. In most cases, it will make more sense to e-mail the file to this location and then have the part(s) delivered, rather than own a machine.

Another group that may embrace an inexpensive 3-D printer are computer-savvy individuals who like to tinker with tools in their garages or workshops. Some of these people will develop their own new designs with CAD or some other design software; others will download designs and pay for them by credit card. However, since they will produce parts only a few times a year, the majority of these individuals will opt to send the designs to the 3-D print shop rather than bear the expense of ownership. The print shop will offer a much wider selection of machines and materials, and part quality will exceed that of most home-based 3-D printers.

The most likely consumer market for 3-D printers may be children - especially grade school children who like to imagine and create. The widespread use of modeling clay, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, Legos and model kits throughout the past 40 years clearly demonstrates this desire. Children are creative and enjoy producing real, three-dimensional objects. In the distant future, as the machines drop to a few hundred dollars, some families may consider one these devices as a creative outlet and a fun toy for their children.

The Obstacles

Even if there is a desire and justification for a 3-D printer at home, there still remains a major obstacle: materials. Nearly all products are comprised of multiple materials and today's products contain plastic, metal, glass, wood, printed circuit boards, wiring and LCD displays. Consider the combination of parts and subassemblies that make up a telephone, clock, bathroom scale, lamp, TV remote control, audio speaker, coffee maker or can opener. There is little likelihood that a single, low-cost device could produce these products, even if it was practical from a time and cost standpoint. Should that capability develop, it would happen in the distant future and high-end RP systems would be the first to include it.

So, are home-use 3-D printers in our future? For most of the population, the answer is no. Costing just a few hundred dollars, some will buy these devices, but they will be the exception that represents a very thin sliver of the consumer market.

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