At one point in time, a 3D printing machine cost more than $20,000. But that was in 2010, and just a few short years later — about 2013 — those same machines were a mere $1,000 in price. Today, those prices are much more manageable, with several machines being developed for under $500, making them much more accessible to the average consumer.
That means, yes, you could buy a 3D printer for your home and start creating items to your heart’s content. What makes this particularly lucrative is that 3D or additive manufacturing, as it’s called, can be used for just about anything.
They can be configured to work with nearly any material you can think of, from wood and masonry to cement and ABS plastic. This is a big deal. It means that affordable 3D printing will eventually become reality and 3D printers will be used to create anything from whole buildings to vehicle parts.
Today’s Consumer-Grade Printers
Unfortunately, 3D printing is still in its infancy, at least at a consumer-grade level. This is the main reason why affordable 3D printing isn’t a reality quite yet. Printers can cost anywhere from $500 all the way up to $10,000 or more. Furthermore, only a small handful of materials can be used currently, the most common of which are ABS and PLA plastics. As a result, printing is best suited for hobbyists, designers and professionals who can make a living by printing goods and items.
Every day, 3D printing technology gets faster, more accurate and cheaper, which means we’re that much closer to owning 3D printers in our homes. But it’s the modeling and scanning that’s a big deal. In the past, CAD software and design experience were required to create a blueprint or file that could be used to print items with a 3D printer. That’s no longer the case, and there are whole communities dedicated to delivering 3D printable designs — Thingiverse is a great example.
Gravity Sketch is another cool service that allows users to create and sketch 3D printable items from a tablet or mobile device.
What makes these communities so beneficial is that anyone can scan or create a printable design and then upload the file for others to use. It’s like a file-sharing service for 3D printable designs and goods. This change does introduce a host of new ideas and concepts about the rights of a digital or printable file. Once something is created, for example, who has the power to distribute the rights to said file? Is it illegal to make a scan of an item someone else created?
Printing With More Materials
Various types of plastic are the go-to materials for 3D printing currently, especially with cheaper printers and hardware. However, companies like MakerBot are slowly inching toward a future with more advanced material support. They were the first company to introduce home-based 3D printers that can create using imitation wood, metal and stone. While these printers still rely on forms of plastic, the resulting items look and even feel like the real thing.
While it won’t be anytime soon that we’ll see home-based 3D printers capable of creating with more advanced materials, the day is fast approaching. Of course, that matters little if you and everyone else around you can barely afford the printer.
When Will They Be Affordable?
When it comes to technology, it’s difficult to define “affordable” as a strict range, especially when the audience for such a product is broad. You, for instance, may find that $500 is a reasonable price, while someone else may consider $100 to be too expensive.
It’s more about the return on investment though, isn’t it? Most smartphones cost anywhere from $300 to $600, but nearly everyone owns a smartphone and carries it around on a daily basis. It’s about what the phone offers, including a bevy of features from GPS and location tracking to day-to-day scheduling and online content.
Therefore, 3D printers in their most affordable form will be genuinely appealing to the average consumer when it’s possible to create just about anything and everything for a relatively low price. That means the supplies — including plastic filament — must be reasonably priced, and there must be a clear opportunity for everyone to participate.
Even so, it’s hard to deny the current iterations of 3D printers as elegant and desirable. You can create some pretty amazing things, even with the smallest of printers.