A 3D Printer in Every Home — Really?

April 29, 2014

Search “3D printer,” and the headlines and hype are compelling:

“You’ll want a 3D printer in your home.”

“3D printers will revolutionize the way we shop.”

“3D printers will be in every home within the decade.”

Hmmmmm? I am skeptical.

I first saw a 3D printer in 2006 at a “home of the future” display loaded with all the latest technology that promised to come standard in new homes within 10 years. The printer was as big as a refrigerator and boasted that you could print a replacement part or custom dishware.

Over the past eight years, these devices have become smaller and much more practical. Their primary users have been engineers who can rapidly create invention prototypes or custom make parts. The medical uses have been amazing: doctors printing parts for surgeries or molds to make a perfectly sized bone or joint replacement. Artists and designers benefit from the technology too, turning their ideas into reality without the need for access to industrial fabricating shops.

I am a TOTAL believer that 3D printing is amazing for innovators, inventors, artists, and in commercial settings. I just can’t buy into the idea of 3D printers for the home. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, we saw a new crop of the devices marketed for home use and priced below $1,000 in some cases as low as $400, but are they really ready for prime time?

To find out, I borrowed a 3D printer for a few weeks, curious to see what fun and functionality I could get out of the device. MakerBot is the leader in the 3D printing industry, and while it doesn’t have the cheapest printers on the market, (they start at $1,375), the company graciously lent me one of its devices, gave me an excellent tutorial, and away I went.

First creation: a comb
Since these devices use programming instructions almost like recipes to create objects, I started with one of the MakerBot pre-loaded “recipes,” and the process could not have been easier: Select the design from the menu, hit Print, and 20 minutes later you’ve created a real thing. Cool factor: 10!

My 6-year-old twins were mesmerized by the device; we searched MakerBot’s repository of designs, called the Thingiverse, and picked out a Lego accessory. Both my son and daughter spent 25 minutes just watching the “extruder” (the thing that spits out the molten plastic) as it built a tiny plastic thunderbolt.

As the week wore on, they wanted to create more items; we eventually settled on a large Darth Vader toy that printed in multiple pieces and needed to be assembled. My son was amped but impatient. It took almost a whole day of printing to get all the parts made, and then putting them together was no easy task — I had to hammer the head onto the body; the arms and legs are still not attached. I spent an hour on it and then gave up. Bottom line: The Thingiverse, a crowd-sourced platform full of designs generously offered by creators, is amazing but inconsistent.

I spent lots of time looking around the house for items the 3D printer could help me repair or improve. My coffee press had a button top on it that broke off during a bout of caffeine-deprived, overly vigorous pressing. I searched the Thingiverse for “coffee press,” “threaded nut,” and “threaded top,” but nothing even close to the part I needed came up. The MakerBot folks introduced me to Tinkercad, a Web-based CAD software program that lets you create your own 3D printing designs. So I turned to the software with high hopes that I could create my own replacement part.

I spent a few hours trying to measure the existing part, estimate the thread count/size, determine if it was metric, create the right-size cylinder in CAD, add the proper threading, and so on. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I have taken a bunch of computer science classes, can program, and am not intimidated by technology, yet I was super frustrated by the process. Designing plastic parts in CAD is just not something this working mom can invest her time in. I bought a replacement coffee press at Ikea.com for $9 and called it a day.

I love the application of 3D printing in commercial and design-centric environments. I love makers who find joy in learning the technology and using 3D printers as tools for education, innovation, and fun toys. I can only imagine what a 3D printer in school would inspire my kids to make. But as a practical consumer reporter, I can’t see the need for a personal 3D printer, and they’re still too hard to use. I don’t recommend buying a 3D printer for your home … at least, not yet.

Follow me on Twitter at @bworley