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Are 3-D printers worth it?

You can build nearly anything in 3-D, thanks to the increasingly affordable 3-D printers. That raises interesting new questions for designers and hobbyists.

By Sean CapitanTech News Daily / May 2, 2013

Eudginei Ribiro blasts air into a 3-D print of a skull to blow away access powder at Z Corporation headquarters, in Burlington, Mass., January 11, 2010. In 2010, 3-D printers could create objects at a rate of one vertical inch per hour, and at a cost of two to three dollars per cubic inch.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor


If you could make anything you want, what would it be? That's the challenge 3-D printing poses to consumers. But that open-ended question is also a challenge for 3-D printing. Do consumers know what they want, and do they care enough and have the patience to make it?

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Home devices such as the MakerBot Replicator and print-to-order companies like Shapeways and Sculpteo can take an idea and make it physical — limited to plastic in the former case but extending to ceramic, plaster, stainless steel and even silver in the latter. Still, you must have the idea to start with.

That's no problem for "makers" — the new hip, high-tech name for hobbyists and home inventors. If you want to design and build a gadget, replace an out-of-stock mechanical part or even create your own jewelry, 3-D printers make it possible and affordable as old technology never could have.

"When you have a MakerBot it makes sense to make anything you want," said Bre Pettis, founder of MakerBot, a company that transformed 3D printers from industrial devices to (somewhat) affordable desktop gadgets. Its flagship MakerBot Replicator 2 sells for $2,199.

And the makers have been busy. MakerBot's Thingiverse site hosts more than 80,000 digital design files that people can download to print anything from toys to tools. They can even tweak the designs in MakerBot's free MakerWare application.

"So that's the beauty of," Pettis told TechNewsDaily. "If somebody has an idea and they make it, they can share it, and the whole world benefits." (However, designs for weapons and any illegal items are not allowed.) 

The Featured section of Thingiverse, for example, includes customizable iPhone cases, a water bottle with cap, a model of the Winterfell castle from the opening credits to "Game of Thrones" and a "steampunk" version of one of the ghosts from "Pac-Man."

Both fun and useful applications, but not exactly cheap compared to the competition. High-end iPhone cases from companies such as Speck top out around $40. And even a stainless-steel vacuum-sealed thermos bottle sells for just $49.95 from REI. You'd have to make a lot of Thingiverse products to pay off the cost of the 3-D printer and the plastic spools you feed it — to say nothing of the time you invest.

Beyond doodads, a MakerBot can produce "revolutionary" things, as Pettis calls them. His favorite example is the Robohand — a prosthetic for children who were born without fingers. Two makers — one in the U.S. and one in South Africa — collaborated online to create the design. Anyone can download the design and print the components to make the prosthetic.

But very few people need to replace a missing hand — certainly not people in every home. [See video: 3D Printing: From Doodads To Prosthetic Hands]

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