3-D Printing Goes Mainstream
A robot created using a Makerbot 3-D printer.
CREDIT: Makerbot Industries
Printing and sharing digital photos is easy. But what if, instead of printing a photo on a coffee cup, you want to print just the coffee cup?
With a different kind of printer, called a 3-D printer, you can do exactly that: produce three-dimensional objects that you design yourself. And the selection of such printers for home use is growing while prices are rapidly falling. In May, the newest of these – the Cube from 3D Systems of Rock Hill, SC – is slated to come on the market with a price of $1,299. Just last January, the Replicator, a similar home 3-D printer from MakerBot Industries of Brooklyn, NY, debuted at prices ranging from $1,799 to $1,999.
There is also a burgeoning online marketplace for 3-D printed objects, at websites that print-on-demand everything from iPhone cases and videogame characters to coffee cups, vases and lamps. What's more, these sites don’t require any prior design experience; if you haven't already created your own object with 3-D software on your computer, you can customize an object that other people – including some famous designers – have already designed, using templates and options provided by the website.
3-D printing is not a new technology, but it has experienced a boom in popularity recently among consumers due to a price reduction of the units. 3-D Systems launched the 3-D printing industry 26 years ago with the introduction of stereolithography and what has become the industry standard 3-D file format (.stl), according to Cathy Lewis, the company's vice president of global marketing.
Manufacturers have been using 3-D printers for decades to rapidly prototype product parts, and five or six years ago the first desktop-sized models intended for office use were introduced by 3-D Systems and other brands. The consumer market for 3-D printers and 3-D printing emerged in the past two years. It is now gaining momentum.
The Cube printer works by extruding one or two colors of plastic from snap-in cartridges to build an object one layer at a time. The colors remain distinct in different sections of the object; they cannot be blended to create a third color. One cartridge is included with the printer, and additional cartridges cost $50 each. There are 10 colors available. Customers also get 25 object files from 3-D Systems to get them started with things to print, Lewis says.
A competitor, MakerBot, sells two versions of its Replicator printer. The less expensive model contains only one extruder, so it prints only single-color objects. The higher-priced model is a dual-extruder machine that can print two colors. Replicators use spools of plastic that cost $50 each.
Those who can’t design, can customize
One of the biggest challenges for most people interested in 3-D printing, Lewis said, is that "most of us know nothing about CAD software and we couldn't begin to design something a 3-D printer could print."
So, 3-D Systems and other companies have come up with a corollary: websites that offer pre-designed printable objects that consumers can easily customize to match their own tastes – similar to how NikeID and Timberland sell customized sneakers or boots – as well as simple tools for designing their own objects from scratch. Once a customer has designed an object to his or her liking, the company will print it and mail it out to them.
Using these sites doesn't offer instant gratification like a home printer, of course, but the more sophisticated 3-D printers they use are able to produce much more complex and higher quality objects than the home machines, featuring better color resolution, blended colors and a broader choice of materials that includes ceramic and metals. Prices and delivery times vary from site to site and in accordance with the size, complexity and material of the object to be printed.
Cubify.com from 3-D Systems was launched in January and is described by Lewis as a mashup of iTunes and Facebook that allows users to create 3-D objects with "coloring book simplicity." Examples include robots, bracelets for the Apple iPod nano and statues of characters from the videogame Spore. Prices vary widely, from $7 for a nano bracelet to as much as $150 for a robot, Lewis says. Delivery time is usually two or three days, she says.
MakerBot operates a similar website called Thingiverse.com, which offers downloadable design files for more than 20,000 objects, according to Stef Shapira, a company spokeswoman. These were created by Thingiverse community members and are meant to be used with the company’s 3-D printer models, such as the Replicator. Additionally, the website offers files and accessory parts for MakerBot Projects designed by the company––a wind-up toy, a walking robot and a remote controlled car. Those three were added to the website last fall and more will be added in coming months, Shapira says.
Print on demand
There are several independent 3-D print-on-demand sites, as well.
FigurePrints.com, based in Seattle, prints 3-D statues of videogame players' own "avatar" characters from the online game World of Warcraft and the Xbox Live online service, as well as their building-block-based models – such as a house – from the online game Minecraft. Data to create the necessary 3-D files for printing is extracted from the online games or Xbox Live by FigurePrints. Prices for the avatar statues range from $49 (Xbox Live) to $129 (WoW). Minecraft prints are priced on a per-block basis, such that a simple house may cost $5 while a fancy building made of many blocks may cost $500, says Ed Fries, CEO of FigurePrints. Delivery time ranges from one to two months, Fries says.
Shapeways.com, based in New York, offers Shapeways Creators tools that let users simply design a wide variety of objects in different categories, ranging from iPhone cases to jewelry. In addition, Shapeways Shops operated by website members sell their own designed objects in categories such as home décor, jewelry and gadgets. There are nearly 6,000 shop operators on the site, says Carine Carmey, a Shapeways spokeswoman. Delivery times range from two weeks for plastic objects to three weeks for metal or ceramic objects, Carmey says.
Sculpteo.com, based in Paris, France, offers user-customizable objects created by a group of professional European designers. These objects range in sophistication from an iPhone case to ceramic plates and vases and a ceramic lamp (which customers must assemble from a supplied parts kit). The ceramic objects are created through a process exclusive to Sculpteo, and those used for dining are dishwasher safe says CEO Clément Moreau. Prices vary widely, from $44 for an iPhone case to $1,000 for a lamp. Delivery time ranges from one week for plastic and resin objects to four weeks for ceramic objects, Moreau says.
Sculpteo’s Moureau thinks that print-on-demand services like his, and not the home printing units, that will represent the future of 3-D printing.
"We really believe that 3-D printing is going to be a mass production technology in the coming years,” he said, “and we think that in one year or maybe two years you will be able to buy some customized object without even knowing it was 3-D printed.”