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.
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If you don't plan to churn out plastic creations the way a hobbyist woodworker churns out furniture, a site like Shapeways or Sculpteo may be more for you. They offer their own range of items you can order, as well as take files like those on Thingiverse or your own custom digital designs. Their industrial-scale machines do things that won't happen at home anytime soon, such as creating metal objects.Skip to next paragraph
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But printing sites also have plenty of bric-a-brac. On Shapeways they include a 2.6-inch tall statue of a sulking Keanu Reeves for $25 and a $59.99 combination espresso cup-cigarette holder.
There are useful items, too, including a slew of iPhone cases. But beware. The page for the "4-4 Case" for the iPhone 4 carries the disclaimer "…this design is right on the edge of what Shapeways can produce to the right quality..." Problems include fitting poorly and scratching the iPhone. However, it sells for just $12.50.
And even with the great products on Shapeways or other sites, you aren't buying 3-D tech any more than you are buying injection-molding tech for plastic earbuds or glued-together Swedwood tech for Ikea furniture.
In these cases, 3-D printers are business equipment for the companies making the products, which now can include small operations — even one-person outfits — such as those on craft sites like Etsy. That can be good for consumers, but you don't have to even know what 3-D printing is to benefit.
Of course there was a time when computers were expensive, hard to use and mainly gadgets for tinkerers with names like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Now many people have an exponentially more powerful doodad that fits in their pocket. That transition took a few decades, however. And even with the pace of technology accelerating, it could be a while before 3-D printers are must-have gadgets — if they ever are.
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