kids these days

Are new ultra-cheap 3D printers revolutionary or just toys?

May 30, 2013
May 30, 2013

Meet the Replicator 2. She’s top of the line, for home 3D printers, and she’ll cost you $2,200, not including shipping.

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Not self-replicating. Yet.(MakerBot)

That’s about what a good PC cost in the 1980’s. And the parallels between the personal computing revolution and the one in 3D printing are irresistible (they’ve been made countless times in all the usual places). Ok, so these things don’t do much more than print out easily-breakable, rough-hewn plastic tchotchkes, but watch out! Some day we’ll use them to solve the really big problems.

Now meet the Pirate3D printer, care of a startup in Singapore. It claims that once it launches, it will be the “world’s cheapest” 3D printer, at around $350 apiece.

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Pirate3D printer is so named because it’s supposed to help you pirate physical objects.(Pirate3D)

But wait! World’s cheapest anythings rarely remain that way for long, and Pirate3D’s claim seems extra silly considering that another company, Hong Kong-based MakiBox, says it will be churning out an even cheaper model for as little as $200 by June of 2013. Meanwhile, current record-holder for world’s cheapest 3D printer, Printrbot, will be shipping a new model for just $300.

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3d printer from makibox
The A6 LT will cost you a third as much as an unlocked iPhone.(MakiBOX)

What’s incredible about these devices is how quickly their prices are falling. Just two years ago, a DIY kit for making your own home 3D printer—with huge amounts of assembly required—was $500. A year later, a comparable but simpler model from Printrbot was $400. And as of this year, the list of cheap 3D printers is longer than ever.

If the trend in 3D printers is like the one seen in PCs over the past thirty years, the features in $2000 3D printers will rapidly make it into the low-end models. Meanwhile, some low-end models will become even cheaper, and as more and more people begin playing with them, an entire ecosystem will emerge.

That said, all of these home models remain merely toys; 3D printers are still most useful in the context of traditional manufacturing.

So why do home 3D printers matter? Just as with the PCs of yore, kids everywhere are going to be playing with these things in their garages, learning non-trivial skills that are hard to pick up as an adult, like how to model things in 3D and how to get creative with the limits of fragile materials and layer-by-layer manufacturing. Those kids will grow up and deliver the manufacturing revolution that is the promise—but not yet the reality—of 3D printing.

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