Imagine 3-D printing parts for your Ikea dresser that you purchased from an iTunes-like digital store. That possibility might not be too far off, according to Douglas Krone, Internet entrepreneur and CEO of online tech store Dynamism.
"Instead of buying something and having it shipped, [consumers] may just buy the rights for something and create it, like we buy music [today]," says Krone of a 3-D future not far beyond 2014.
If you don’t already know someone with a 3-D printer, you will by the end of this year, says Bre Pettis, professional tinkerer and CEO of Brooklyn experimental technology company MakerBot Industries—comparing printers’ pending ubiquity to the precedent already set by the mass adoption of the Apple II in the early 1980s and ink jet printers after that.
Pettis’s forecast comes amidst a flurry of 3-D news in the last year, from an initiative by MakerBot, Donorschoose.org and others to put 3D printers in each of America’s roughly 100,000 public schools, to rumors of McDonald's adding 3D-printing capability to its restaurants for Happy Meal toy customization.
Shipments of 3-D printers costing less than $100,000 grew 49% in 2013, and are expected to grow 75% more in 2014, according to an October report from Gartner. Spending on 3-D printers is expected to reach $669 million this year, with consumer spending more than doubling to $133 million.
And while we live in a world of 3-D printed wonders, from the working human kidney to the race to produce a 3-D printed pizza for NASA’s astronauts in space—the real revolution is happening at home. Pettis, whose biggest clients include the likes of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin, says the next frontier is all about parents, teachers, and at-home tinkerers.
That target is made even more feasible by the fact that high-performance desktop 3-D printers like MakerBot’s Replicator 2 come in at $2,200, roughly the cost of a high-end laptop. Krone is confident printers in the DIY sphere will dip to $1,000 or below this year. (Staples already carries Cube brand 3-D desktop printers in five colors for $1,300.)
"Our biggest challenge is actually education—letting people know that they can be empowered to use this technology to make anything," says Pettis of addressing the stigma behind his sophisticated machines. MakerBot models receive design input from an SD card, and the company recently collaborated with Microsoft to allow even easier printing from Windows 8.1 devices the same way a user would print to an ink jet printer.
But even with the growing presence of domestic 3-D printing, Krone’s iTunes-for-objects prediction may have to wait. E-commerce has yet to catch up with the demand for product designs, and professional manufacturers have yet to figure out how to sell their specs to the rapidly growing community of 3-D DIYers, says Michael Weinberg of D.C. digital advocacy firm Public Knowledge.
The closest thing, he says, is Cube’s marketplace Cubify, which features an interface similar to Fab.com for purchasing templates in genres from jewelry to lighting—but its impact is small.
Instead, most users develop and trade free design formats on sites like Google’s Sketchup and MakerBot’s Thingiverse. And the recent advent of 3-D scanners, which copy existing objects with lasers, removes the necessity of conceptualization altogether.
That doesn’t mean demand for professional designs will go away, Weinberg says. For now, a vacuum of corporate interference and copyright litigation gives home creators space to run free with their designs—but they haven’t come close to scratching the surface of 3-D printing. He likens our understanding of this technology’s future to explaining social media to someone in 1950.
"The real things with 3-D printing won’t really come until we have people who’ve grown up assuming those capabilities. But in the meantime, there’s still plenty of neat stuff."