On Thingiverse, a site where anyone can share their 3-D digital designs for others to use, you can find the blueprints for printing a world of oddities: a scale model of a great white shark skull, Star Wars cufflinks, and the "Monster Cube" puzzle, to name a few entries among the 60,000 open-source designs that Joshua Pearce, a researcher at Michigan Technological University, estimates live on the site.
But among the curiosities are also a growing number of common household items that can be made on a 3-D printer and are actually pretty useful. So Pearce decided to do the math.
In a study published in the journal Mechatronics in July, Pearce discusses 20 common household items he found on Thingiverse, and how he then searched Google Shopping to calculate a range of what it would cost to get these items shipped to his door. He compared these to the costs of making the items on a home 3-D printer, including the price of materials and even the electricity consumed during the estimated print time.
His conclusion? "For the average American consumer, 3-D printing is ready for showtime," he writes. If a consumer printed only those 20 items in a year (really, he could do it in a weekend for a total of $18), the avoided purchase costs would range from $300 to $2,000.
That means a 3-D printer could pay for itself in as little as four months and at least within two years. The payback time could shrink even more, he says, especially as 3-D printers become more affordable, reliable and easy to repair by making their own parts. Earlier this year, Staples began selling 3-D printers starting at $1299.99.
This all seems exciting on the surface. These days, everyone from President Obama to General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt talks up the potential for 3-D printing to reinvent how the U.S. does business—helping to bring manufacturing back to domestic shores, but also allowing average households to have their own mini-factories at home.
However, the list of 20 items in Pearce’s study should give us pause. They include a key hanger, a jewelry organizer, a garlic press, a paper towel holder, a spoon holder, a Pierogi mold and several kinds of iPhone cases, docks and stands. Pearce deliberately chose affordable items in his study. But for people on a budget, buying a mold to make Pierogis (which, by the way, are delicious) isn’t exactly going to make or break the daily budget calculation. It’s also worth questioning whether another item on the list—a shower head—could possibly function as well in a plastic 3-D print compared to a store-bought item that has been designed to last.
Nevertheless, the trend is growing. It will get easier and more affordable to make things at home on a 3-D printer, and soon these devices will be cheap enough that it will make sense for many people to jump in and buy one. But Amazon and Walmart shouldn’t be worried about competition just yet.