For many non-DIY people, 3D printing is a weird concept. A 3D printer? You mean like an ink jet printer, except it prints in 3D? How does that work? What does it print? Origami figures? Paper dolls? Embossed letters? And when I explain to such puzzled folks that a 3D printer is misnamed, and that a 3D printer is actually a device that creates solid objects from a computer design by melting layer upon layer of plastic one atop another, Arthur C. Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" springs to mind.
3D printing certainly has been, is, and will be a thing for a lot of businesses (just think of how hardware store owners could radically reduce dust-collecting inventory by simply printing out the geegaw you need) and especially the medical/health sectors, such as 3D organ and prosthetics printing. 3D printing is schools could spur students toward new and burgeoning fields of digital study and innovative industries.
The question is, when should the rest of us really start to care, and take this trend seriously as something we might be able to take advantage of without spending a fortune or learning a massive new body of technical knoweldge? Two recent 3D printing developments may help bring 3D printing closer to mainstream acceptance.
The Staples Center
The first development is the new in-store 3D printing centers at two Staples stores. You'll find one at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan, and one at 12605 Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.
At either location, you'll be able to drop-off designs you've created for printing out on a 3D Systems' multi-material ProJet 460OPlus industrial printer. Or, you can buy a 3D Systems Cube printer ($1,299) or the three-color CubeX Trio ($4,000). Or, you can sit in a 3D booth modeling booth and get your face imprinted on a foot-tall action figure ($70), which you can pick up around a week later.
The action figures are a fun little gimmick, but for most of the rest of us, this isn't an especially helpful way to utilize 3D printing, because in order to do anything useful at Staples, you have to come in with a design.
3D Printing Present
Companies have been using 3D printing for years to create product prototypes before moving to actual manufacturing. And marketers use 3D printing to create short-run or customized promotional or office items, which is the business sector Staples hopes to capture. But for everyone else, even Staples acknowledges the technological 3D disconnect with the general public. "People read about 3D but don't know what to do with it," admits Chris DeMeo, the company's director of new business development for business services.
Staples' 3D printing centers exhibit items that are hardly making for a compelling 3D printing present for ordinary consumers: mostly monochromic plastic knick-knacks, tchotchkes and do-dads, like customized gifts, wedding/bar-mitzvah center pieces, smartphone cases, custom jewelry — your face imposed on an action figure — the kinds of things consumers can easily customize and order from online 3D printing shops such as Shapeways.
Even a long-time 3D printing company such as 3D Systems, which has been around for 30 years, doesn't know quite how to tackle a potential consumer market. For instance, the company sells two pieces of software on the Staples' Web site and within the 3D printing centers: Cubify Sculpt 3D ($129.99) and Cubify Design 3D ($199.99). What are the differences between these two software programs? Novices would have a hard time answering that basic question from the non-descript descriptions of each program, which you can read here. Essentially, the Design 3D package is more CAD in nature, while Sculpt 3D lets you create designs in a method akin to virtual clay molding. I think.
3D Printing Future
For everyday consumers, 3D printing remains merely an enthusiast hobby. At CES, Bre Pettis, the founder and CEO of MakerBot (the company that has tried to make itself the poster boy for this new 3D printing frontier), was the featured speaker at the industry association's Leaders in Technology dinner. After showing off the company's latest printers intended for home use, Pettis proudly announced that in the five years of its existence, the company had sold just 44,000 consumer 3D printers.
There are obvious consumer functions for a home 3D printer, especially for the Bob Villas among us. Instead of calling up and getting an appliance maker to sell you some odd $5 part for a DIY repair (if it's not already discontinued) you could simply download the design and print it at home yourself. You could print out your own hangers, picture hooks, flower vases, door stops, drawer pulls, name plates, dinner plates, license plate frames, and anything and everything else.
But any future success of ubiquitous home 3D printers depends easy-to-use software, a critical mass of downloadable ready-to-print schematics and designs, expanding to materials beyond plastic, and, of course, price. Right now, consumer 3D printers are 20-70 times the price of a regular printer.
One company might have solved most of these consumer 3D printing problems: M3D, with its Micro 3D printer. Micro, a Kickstarter project, has raised around $3 million, when its goal was just $50,000, which may indicate how hungry regular folks are for affordable 3D printing. Micro is an adorable (as much as 3D printer can be adorable), small and seemingly simple-looking 3D printer designed with the non-expert consumer in mind, especially where pricing is concerned: just $300, at least until the Kickstarter campaign ends tomorrow. Delivery for the first units are promised for this August.
With Staples bringing 3D printing to retail and Micro pioneering a 3D printing pricing revolution, 3D printing may finally be primping for its consumer close-up.