My mom came charging through the front door, her face slightly flushed. “I just saw the most amazing thing. Come on,” she said.
She packed me and my siblings into the van and drove us to Radio Shack. (My father, still a hunt-and-peck, two-finger typer, was uninterested.) There on the floor of the store was a framed picture of a tiger resting against a printer. “It’s so real,” she said.
She was referring to a printout of a Bengal tiger made on a color dot-matrix printer.
This was in 1992. Our family computer: a Tandy 1000. The specific features of this Tandy 1000 have been lost to shredded files and a sale through a newspaper classified ad, but I do remember that it lacked a hard drive, let alone a printer.
Today, that tiger would look like a piece of retro art, possibly hanging on some tech company’s lobby wall as either a reminder of how far we’ve come or a stab at irony.
But then? Revolutionary.
So when I showed my mother a hot-pink bracelet that was made by the MakerBot Replicator 2, a desktop 3D printer, she didn’t quite flush, but she was impressed.
“Neat,” she said, testing the springiness of the plastic before putting it on her wrist.
Just distinguishable from magic
Even though I know it’s not true, the MakerBot Replicator 2 seems to create items out of thin air. Busloads of school children, tourists, and senior citizens have stopped at the MakerBot retail store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood to watch a nozzle lay down heated, biodegradable polymer polylactic acid, layer by layer per a CAD drawing, to make a bracelet, a house, a heart, or Doctor Who’s TARDIS.
Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, watches the machines start working on a snowy day before opening time. Already, a man speaking rapid German into his cell phone stands by the window display, watching a Replicator 2 at work. He only stops talking to take a picture.
To Pettis, desktop 3D printing is the dawn of another industrial revolution. So far, his company has sold 16,000 machines, which he says put the power of prototyping directly in the hands of the designers, the inventors, and the person with a workshop in the garage. “We want to change the world and give people the tools to solve the problems of the next generation,” says Pettis.
He’s always been a tinkerer, starting with bikes and cars: He’s fixed up 30 sub-$2,000 cars, starting with a 1973 Jeep Commando, which he sighs about when he mentions that he now drives a minivan. He then shifted into puppetry at the Jim Henson Company in 1995. When he moved to Brooklyn a decade later, he organized what he called a “clubhouse for hardware geeks.”
“What do you do with a community of people who have all the tools to make anything?” he says. They built their first 3D printer because they couldn’t afford one. That “clubhouse” is now the fourth floor of the MakerBot studios.
The process of 3D printing isn’t new, not in tech time anyway. The first patent on the technology, then called rapid prototyping, was filed in 1986, and the first commercial machine came to market in 1988. They were used primarily to build prototypes of designs for engineers, which otherwise required an enormous amount of hand-work or the use of expensive CNC (computer-numeric controlled) routers.
“The industrial type of machines have been evolving, progressing, and improving since then,” says Tim Caffrey, associate consultant at Wohlers Associates, a consulting agency in the field. He began working with the technology in 1992 while at Boeing.
On the industrial level, the machines aren’t practical for a design shop or engineering firm to own, and much less feasible for a guy with a workshop in his garage. Industrial systems for building plastic parts run $10,000 to $800,000, according to Wohlers. Bump that up to something that makes metal parts and you’re looking at $90,000 to $1.5 million. The MakerBot Replicator 2, which was released in September 2012, has a price tag of $2,199.
That’s why Erol Gunduz, a professor at the NYU-SCPS Center for Advanced Digital Applications, thinks that desktop printers signal the next “apex” of 3D printing: The plastic-forming models now cost about as much as a new computer. In 2007, a total of 66 desktop machines had been sold. In 2011, that number jumped to over 23,000.
The technology, particularly with plastics-printing, has been priced for the masses, and works well for someone like Gunduz, also a sculptor. Engineers, designers, and inventors have jumped on board. MakerBot’s users are creating things like better baby spoons, sleep apnea monitors small enough to be sewn into a preemie’s onesie, a prosthetic hand for a child born without fingers, plastic pieces that secure a Square credit card reader to an iPhone, and doll house furniture.
Floor plans of old Sears houses, sold from 1908 to the 1940s as mail-order kits, have been uploaded into the MakerBot as CAD files and printed into models that open up at each floor. A museum in Spain has used 3D printing to replicate their sculptures so the blind can feel the art.
MakerBot also supports Thingiverse.com, where users upload their open source designs. There are designs for over 38,000 items, including jewelry, iPhone cases, and lens cap holders, but also a Virgin Mary toast press, a Mario mask, an alligator head, duct flanges, battery trays, and Advent calendar puzzle pieces (a toy — like an X-Wing starfighter, a snowman, or a mini MakerBot Replicator — within each piece).
Despite the fast growth in device sales and the ready availability of useful and amusing items, Caffrey doubts that 3D printing will find its way into every home.
“Before PCs, people still had to write letters. They still had to balance their checkbooks. They still had to file their taxes. Those functions that PCs have replicated were already there,” says Caffrey. “But not everybody out there is designing parts and building parts. In fact very few people are.
“I don’t think the average Joe who owns a PC and an HP printer is going to go out and buy a 3D printer and stick it on his office shelf to build parts. And if he does, he might download some content, buy some files, and mess with it, but then it might start gathering dust, kind of like the elliptical and bicycles gather dust after you buy them at New Year’s.”
“How practical is it for everyone to have a $2,000 printer in their own apartment?” asks Gunduz. Competition could push prices down further still. MakerBot owns about a quarter of the desktop 3D printing market, but theirs isn’t the only desktop product in town. At CES this year, two dozen companies presented their own desktop printers at prices ranging from $520 to $4,370.
Adding up to a big total
Desktop printing is a small part of the whole. Additive manufacturing has grown nearly 30% in the last year, to a $1.7 billion industry. By 2015, Wohlers expects the sale of additive manufacturing products and services to reach $3.7 billion worldwide, $6.5 billion by 2019. Personal 3D printers make up just 5.3% of that $1.7 billion pie.
Pettis tried to sell me on a Replicator 2 for my desk. For me, it’d be as practical as a photo printer, which would be convenient. But if I really want a printed picture, I’d upload it and pick it up from the CVS drugstore up the street. “There might be an equivalent of a Kinko’s within 15 minutes of your house,” says Caffrey, that could produce objects you wanted without the necessity of owning one.
If I really wanted to boot up Google SketchUp and design my own TARDIS, or download a design from Thingiverse (there are currently dozens of Gallifreyan designs there, including a pattern to make a TARDIS candy mold), I could have it printed at NextFab Studio in Philadelphia for $35 to $40 per cubic inch. If I wanted to start my own Etsy business making TARDIS models, customizing orders by a customer’s size and color preference, along with other fixtures from science fiction movies and television shows, it would make sense to buy one, and reduce costs to $48 per kilogram of filament. But to make a single Doctor Who keepsake? Probably not.
Still, I see Pettis’s point of unknown potential. With that Tandy 1000, my family saw no reason for a hard drive, modem, or printer. Now, I don’t go on a cross-country trip without in-flight Wi-Fi.
“You now have more computing power in your pocket than went to the moon,” he says. “It’s not like a jetpack where we’re delivering on a promise. Sixteen thousand people are living in the future. Are we all going to get there? Yeah.”
Photos by Marco Arment.
Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the great Garden State. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Runner's World, Running Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Collingswood.