"Perspectives", a monthly column authored by
Todd Grimm and Terry Wohlers
for "Time-Compression Technologies."
This column was published in the
June 2001 issue. For more great articles,
visit the "Time-Compression Technologies'"
Web site at www.timecompress.com.
3D Printers for the Home: Are They in Our Future?
Todd Grimm and Terry Wohlers
Three-dimensional printers are available at a fraction of the price of high-end Rapid prototyping (RP) equipment, and these prices are expected to decline. For example, BMT in Germany is gearing up to offer its DeskModeler printer for 19,000 euro (about $16,500). The BMT device is a simple and straightforward concept that is based on an HP 895 ink jet printer. Another alternative, Solidimension of Israel, is not far from introducing its desktop device based on plastic lamination. At press time, Solidimension had not set a price, but it is expected to be lower than anything else on the market. Indeed, prices for 3D printers are headed in the right direction.
In the future, the actual cost to manufacture a 3D printer will be little more than its 2D 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 is also true of the machines from Z Corp. If these companies could manufacture and sell thousands of units per year, they could easily lower the sale price from five to four digit figures. With annual sales of tens of thousands of units, the machine price could drop to three digits. At this price point, a significant percentage of the U.S. population would be able to afford a 3D printer.
But, is it a justifiable expense and a desirable solution?
The difficult question is not if consumers could buy one, but whether or not they would buy one. The benefits of owning a device will provide the answer. 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 3D 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 lots 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 3D parts. The balance of time, money, convenience, and quality is essential in most decisions. It is unlikely that home-based 3D printers will deliver this desired balance.
In the future, 3D printers may be able to produce some parts (even complete products) that one might otherwise purchase at a store. Examples include tape dispensers, baseball bats, dinnerware, and picture frames. However, in most cases, it would be impractical to produce these items with 3D printing because a wide variety is already available at inexpensive prices in most discount stores. 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 then print it out.
Wouldn't it be handy to have a 3D 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, although there are major limitations. As with the building of 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 is also 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.
Some individuals will justify the purchase of a low-cost 3D printer. But these people are not the typical consumer. They are practicing professionals working from their homes. As designers, engineers and consultants, they are also some of the same people that use RP technology today. This group of individuals does not represent a new market but rather the expansion of an existing one. These designers could use a 3D printer to minimize the reliance on a service provider to eliminate delivery delays. Before they purchase their own printer, however, they will use the services of a 3D print shop, similar in function to today's Kinko's copy and printing centers. 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 owning a machine.
Another group that might embrace an inexpensive 3D printer are computer-savvy individuals that like to tinker in their garages or workshops. They are among the people working away in their garages with power hand tools, band saws and drill presses late in the day and on weekends. 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 3D print shop rather than bearing 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 3D printers.
The most likely consumer market for 3D printers may be children. Kids, especially grade school children, like to imagine and create. The widespread use of modeling clay, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, Lego's, and model kits over the past 40 years clearly demonstrates this desire. Kids are creative, and they like to produce real, three-dimensional objects. In the distant future, as the machines drop to a few hundred dollars, families that have one of everything will consider one these devices as a creative outlet and a fun toy for their children.
Even if there was desire and justification for a 3D printer at home, there remains a major obstacle: materials. Nearly all products are comprised of multiple materials. 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 3D 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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