If you've been hearing a lot about 3-D (three-dimensional) printing lately, much of that is due to Makerbot. Aesthetically and philosophically the wunderkind of Apple, the young company and its Replicator Mini is doing to computer-assisted manufacturing what Steve Jobs & Co. did for computers: making them viable for consumers. For $1,375, you can visit one of three stores (two in New York, one in Boston) and bring home your own 29.5" x 31.0" x 38.1" robotic manufacturing machine. By driving down prices, expanding access and creating systems for sharing and selling designs, the company has remade the 3-D printer market in its image. Everything about their retail space reinforces an Apple analogy: modern, minimalistic décor; in-store demos and events; playful kitsch like gumball machines; and 3-D printer booths.
Various types are available, but 3-D printing essentially creates a solid object from a three-dimensional digital design, usually entered via computer. Makerbot printers use an additive manufacturing process that heats a corn-based filament to 450 degrees and applies it layer by layer. The process is something like watching a dot-matrix printer churn out an image. It's not fast. Printings can take hours depending upon the size of the object. It also isn't cheap. If you want to print anything larger than a coffee cup, you can expect to spend several thousand dollars for the printer. And on top of that, each filament spool—essentially your printer cartridge—costs about $50. That said, with practice, patience and some capital, three-dimensional printing can produce most anything you find on Makerbot's Digital Store or dream up using computer-assisted design software.
The question is whether the time is right. While sales are expected to double this year, only 100,000 3-D printers were sold in 2014. A glance around the Makerbot retail store helps to explain why. Most 3-D printings are, frankly, expensive trinkets: $200 for a plastic cupcake. However, you could also make a prosthetic hand (see the website for video).
When you get beyond the kitsch, 3-D printers make sense. The Makerbot store isn't just a place where customers can purchase inedible cupcakes or produce plastic selfies; it's a prototype printing house for entrepreneurs, architects and educators. Where a visionary once needed a factory, months of lead-time and a big budget to produce a prototype, at a Makerbot store one needs a CAD design, an afternoon, and $10-$210. Makerbot's next wave of technology simulates the appearance of wood, limestone, iron or bronze. Just as this technology could enable limestone selfies or bronzed cupcakes, it could also allow customers to print prototypes that retain their plasticity, without looking so, well, plastic.