Best Gift Ever: A 3D Printer

Harvard Business Review

Putting a special gift under the tree tonight? If your loved one is a DIY type and you were willing to spend some hundreds of dollars, it might just be a 3D printer. Even better, you might be getting one yourself. In the past year, the technology has managed to dip to a price point and the functionality has become attractive enough that a consumer market is really materializing.

For the makers and geeks among us, this is the world as it should be — as it was foretold by Star Trek. The "replicators" that showed up in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation explained a lot about how crews might live for years on starships and starbases. These were machines that recycled waste matter into whatever was needed next, from spare parts to synthesized food. Today's machines aren't quite so impressive, but neither are they fiction. In fact, since the 1980s (before The Next Generation even went on the air), it has been possible to "print" objects.

Here is how it works, in simple terms from a simple man. A computer-controlled heated nozzle (think "glue gun") moves back and forth across a print platform, setting down a layer of liquid or pulverized material. The material might be melted ABS plastic (such as the black plastic pipe used in residential plumbing) or a quick-drying resin, metal or stone, or even biological matter. Each deposit is guided by a diagram of that layer on an x and y axis. The platform then moves down (on the z-axis); to accommodate the next layer, and the process repeats until a three-dimensional object is fully formed.

Product manufacturers of various types have been evaluating and increasingly using this technique — also known as known as "additive manufacturing" — for years. In the realm of healthcare, things have reached the point that even human tissue can now be printed, and plans are being developed to produce whole organs. GE announced recently that it is printing working parts for aircraft engines; Airbus says it will someday print an entire aircraft. At first blush, this seems near-insane, but once you see these printers in action, you start to believe.

With a development trajectory resembling computers — ever more compact, capable, and cheap — it was only a matter of time till these machines would catch on as a consumer phenomenon. That process was accelerated by the advent of Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform. Brook Drumm, the man behind the Printrbot, saw phenomenal success with a simple, easy-to-use design that now sells for $549. His project raised almost one million in 2011 from 1,808 backers. Another year brought a big innovation leap with the Form 1, from startup Formlabs, which raised close to three million from 2,068 backers. The first open source 3D printer, the RepRap, inspired many of the current printers, including the more well-known commercial DIY printers from Makerbot, MakerGear, and 3D Systems with its Rapman and Cube machines.

And by the way, Kickstarter is also the fund-raising mechanism behind another innovation that is wonderful to see — the Filabot, a plastic filament making machine that allows makers to recycle their own plastic waste into material for their 3D Printers. It funded fully, and is now in development.

It isn't just the affordability of the hardware that is driving 3D printing to the household level. It's also the greater ease of creating instruction files to send to the printers, and the growing library of them accessible free of charge. Thingiverse, a website for sharing digital designs of all kinds, already has about 3,000 downloadable files for 3D printable objects, almost all of them posted by individual hobbyists.

All of this is important because as people gain experience and familiarity with additive manufacturing, their imaginations will be fired and we'll see a surge of further innovation, not only at the consumer DIY level but in industrial applications as well. Terry Wohlers , founder of 3D printing research firm Wohlers Associates, already sees this happening. In a recent report on the state of the industry, he writes:

Low-cost 3D printers affect both the professional and consumer markets. The increased sale of these machines over the past few years has taken additive manufacturing (AM) mainstream more than any other single development. 3D printers have helped spread the technology and made it more accessible to students, researchers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts, hobbyists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

Science fiction might have whetted the appetite for 3D printing, but real human ingenuity and curiosity will drive it to reality. As more consumers catch on to the power of a 3D printer, we'll see an entire cottage industry of small urban manufacturers blossom

All the more reason, then, to make or get a gift of a 3D printer — or failing that, to at least get a one-of-a-kind object that only a 3D printer can produce. As you might expect, service bureaus have sprung up that will 3D print objects on demand. Think of them as the Kinko's of the 21st century. (Check out, for example, Shapeways and Ponoko.) With every object printed, and every person who gets excited about the potential of this new technology, we take another step in a manufacturing revolution that has the potential to transform the global economy.

Is that too much to wish for?

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