SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
Starting at $200: a smaller footprint, standardization, and growing interest helps.
Last fall, Ars reported on the opening of a Southern California shop that was selling a $600 3D printer. The brick-and-mortar seemed to bring the total number of 3D printer retail stores in America (and possibly the world) to two. Since then, there’s been a steadily rising interest in 3D printing—particularly in 3D-printed firearms, which, of course, has drawn the ire of legislators.
For these printers to truly come into the mainstream, however, manufacturers need to first make it easy for consumers to buy them. That goal came one step closer to realization in early May 2013, when office supply retailer Staples announced that it would be selling a $1,300 printer from 3D Systems, making it the first major retailer to do so.
But for many potential buyers, the price of a 3D printer is more of hurdle to ownership than where they can buy it. And recently, the industry has seen a rapid drop in prices, too. Pirate3D is building what it describes as a “fully assembled” printer, styled with a clear nod to the Apple G4 cube. As of this writing, the company is blew away its Kickstarter fundraiser for its printer, reaching over $1 million in orders and donations. (For a donation of $347, backers will get Pirate’s 3D printer, “The Buccaneer,” in December 2013.) The Printrbot Simple, meanwhile, is made in California and sells for just $300. Going even lower is the Hong Kong-based Makibox A6 LT, which retails for just $200.
Stratasys, one of the older 3D printing and rapid prototyping firms, just acquired MakerBot for over $400 million this week and estimates that “between 35,000 to 40,000 desktop 3D printers were sold in 2012.” The company expects that number to double in 2013.
“You don’t buy a printer based on resolution anymore”
So what is going on among 3D printer hobbyists?
“I think it’s a combination of cheaper hardware, economies of scale, and figuring out where to cut corners on low-end printers,” Mark Frauenfelder, editor of MAKE magazine, told Ars, pointing out that some of the low-end printers are using higher-quality ABS plastic (think LEGOs).
“The reason ABS printers cost more is that they require a heated bed (to prevent the ABS plastic models from warping.) Also, both ABS and PLA are very hard. But ABS is brittle, while PLA has some flex to it. The beds are smaller, which means the things you can print out are smaller, too.”
For example, MakerBot’s Replicator 2 (one of the early, “prosumer”-grade 3D printers) costs $2,200 and has dimensions of 49 x 42 x 38 cm (a total volume of 78,000 cubic cm). The $200 A6 LT from Makibox is about a quarter that size at 29 x 23.5 x 23.5 cm (16,000 cubic cm). So if the Replicator 2 is a high-end desktop, the A6 LT is more analogous to a netbook—enough, particularly price-wise, for most individual and home-use applications.
Hobbyist-grade 3D printers have also converged on a filament size.
“All these variables and choices come to be simplified, we’re all shipping 1.75mm, we’re all doing 0.1mm height, and so that’s no longer something you have to worry about,” Brook Drumm, the CEO of Printrbot, told Ars. “You don’t buy a printer based on resolution anymore. I can print the same stuff as Bukobot and MakerBot. The real question is what type of thermoplastic do you want to print at?”
As interest has grown, the smaller hobbyist hardware startups are beginning to purchase their components in larger and larger quantities, which in turn drives down the consumer price. Other companies, too, are changing their integral parts with price in mind.
“We designed it from the ground up to be cheap and simple,” said Jon Buford of Makibox. “Most people are using belts and pulleys, we’re using lead screws, which is what’s more common in CNC machines. Our mechanism is designed to be simpler and it doesn’t take as much calibration. It’s the same firmware for every machine.”
Enlarge / The white portion of this AR-15, known as the “lower,” was manufactured using 3D printing.
The industry-wide hope is that as the machines themselves become cheaper and easier to use, even young children will be able to 3D design their own objects.
“My son, at age 8, he designed a chess piece,” Drumm added. “I was looking over his shoulder to be fair, on an iPad—but the software tools are getting easier. My wife won’t be able to do it. She doesn’t think about centerlines, or center points. There are some people that will never learn it. It’s surprised me how computer software has gotten easier and you will plunge into that cross-section of America or the world.”
Most of us don’t have a father who runs a 3D printer company—even with a $200 3D printer, I certainly wouldn’t know what to do with it. And I’m not the only one, says Peter Basiliere, who covers the 3D printing industry as an analyst for Gartner Research. The reality is that 3D printing is still too difficult for the mainstream consumer—although that’s slowly starting to change.
“Today you can go to an office superstore and buy an HP printer for the home and it will wirelessly connect to your PC, and you can print,” he told Ars. “But [with 3D printers] now, the consumer has to know how to create in 3D on a 2D display. They have to have the software and they need the printer to have material that they can use. Most people aren’t going to spend more on their printer than they are on their tablet.”
But, he acknowledged, that’s starting to change as many high school students are learning 3D modeling at a younger and younger age.
“You’re getting a whole generation that is using those tools and when they enter the workplace that’s when it will really take off for typical consumer use,” he said. “These low-cost machines, the analogy to the early days of the PC is spot on.”