Printing beyond the page

We’re at the very beginning of what could one day become a major shift in how we acquire products. The 3-D MakerBot “Thing-O-Matic” printer is an early player and illustrates the idea’s potential. The Thing-O-Matic works with a cord of plastic that serves as the base material. Send it a properly defined drawing of the item you need, and it will make one for you, heating the end of the plastic and gradually shaping the substrate one layer at a time. Who hasn’t broken a part – a component of a toy, or a flange inside a dishwasher, or the cup-holder inside a car? The Thing-O-Matic becomes a way to produce a new part without an expensive repair call.

You can buy a 3-D printer like this for about $1,100. To get a glimpse of the kind of things people are building with them, check the Thingverse site ( www .thingverse .com ), which showcases more than 4,000 objects that users have created, ranging from soap dispensers to vases and sets of gears. All of these are plastic objects, but the path forward seems clear: Adding metal to the mix, as more expensive 3-D printers can do, allows the production of a wide variety of spare parts like screws and bolts. That trip to the hardware store to buy a package of nails transforms into using your 3-D software to send the specs to the printer and letting it produce the goods.

If all this sounds like much ado about trivialities, keep your eye on the bigger picture. As the cost of 3-D printers begins to decline (the $1,100 Thing-O-Matic is still expensive, and at that, comes in kit form), the idea of producing everyday objects begins to translate to the home environment. Look five to 10 years out as an interesting trend begins to occur. Whether you create one, two or 50 items on your 3-D printer, the cost of producing the item remains the same per item. We’ve lived for so long with the idea that things are cheaper when made in large numbers that this reversal of the trend takes us by surprise, but it seems built into the 3-D printer concept.

Imagine a future in which, when you want a new coffee grinder, you pay not for the physical device but the 3-D template that is downloaded to your printer to be reproduced within it. I notice that a source as down to Earth as The Economist is talking about 3-D printing having an impact as profound as the original industrial revolution.

Right now these printers are the stuff of hobbyists, just as the original PCs began in the form of kits that people assembled and experimented with for fun. But the sophisticated 3-D printer coming in not so many years is a potential game-changer that could affect how we acquire and modify essential products.

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