In his State of the Union address, along with the standard calls for education reform and energy independence, President Barack Obama gave a shout-out to a growing technology. In a lab in Youngstown, Ohio, the president said, "Workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything."
When Brook Drumm saw clips from the speech at his home outside Sacramento, Calif., he wanted to reach through his TV and give the president a fist bump. Drumm, a bald, goateed father of three, designed the Printrbot, a desktop 3-D printer kit. Like a number of other 3-D printers, it uses heated plastic — applied layer by layer to a heated bed by a glue-gun-like extruder — to turn designs created on a computer into real objects.
As Drumm illustrated in the Kickstarter campaign he used to raise more than $830,000 to start his business just over a year ago, the Printrbot is small enough to fit on a kitchen counter, next to the Mr. Coffee. "The goal for the company," Drumm said in world-beating tones, "is a printer in every home and every school."
The technology for 3-D printing has existed for years, and Obama was referring to its applications in manufacturing. But there is a growing sense that 3-D printers may be the home appliance of the future, much as personal computers were 30 years ago, when Dick Cavett referred to the Apple II in a TV commercial as "the appliance of the '80s for all those pesky household chores."
Like computers, 3-D printers originally proved their worth in the business sector, cost a fortune and were bulkier than a Kelvinator. But in the past few years, less-expensive desktop models have emerged, and futurists and 3-D printing hobbyists are now envisioning a world in which someone has an idea for a work-saving tool — or breaks the hour hand on the kitchen clock or loses the cap to the shampoo bottle — and simply prints the invention or the replacement part.
Bre Pettis, the chief executive officer of MakerBot, the New York-based company leading the charge in making 3-D printers for the consumer market, has seen how the technology is already being applied. "We have stories of people who have fixed their blenders, fixed their espresso machine," he said.
A file-sharing database MakerBot oversees, called Thingiverse, currently holds more than 36,000 downloadable designs. "One of my favorite stories from Thingiverse is a dad who has a daughter who is 41 inches tall," Pettis said. "They were going to an amusement park, and she wasn't going to be able to go on any of the rides because the minimum height was 42 inches. The dad made orthopedic inserts for her shoes."
Last fall, MakerBot opened what may be the first retail store devoted to 3-D printers, in New York. Inside, demonstration models of the company's Replicator 2, a slick, steel-framed machine with the boxy dimensions of a microwave that sells for about $2,200, are constantly printing, turning files created on Trimble SketchUp and other computer-aided design (CAD) software into things like architecture models or smartphone cases.
Emmanuel Plat, director of merchandising for the Museum of Modern Art's retail division, said that in his experience, watching a 3-D printer work can induce future shock. "When people see the machine function, they're mesmerized," said Plat, who counts himself among those impressed.
As part of its "Destination: NYC" collection in May, the MoMA Design Store will feature a Replicator 2 printing New York-themed items for sale, such as a miniature skyscraper or taxi; people can also buy the printer, Plat said.
In an age when shooting video with a phone and sending it to a friend across the world is old hat, it's not easy to wow anyone with technology. Still, everywhere he goes lately, Plat said he hears people gushing about 3-D printing. "The word is out in the design community and creative community," he said. "The applications are limitless."
But for all the excitement surrounding 3-D printing, there is still a significant gap between its potential and the current reality. The 15,000 or so early adopters who have bought a MakerBot printer are mostly design professionals or hobbyists from the maker community, not homeowners who still have trouble programming the remote. And the things being printed still tend to be trinkets such as toys, key chains or just colorful pieces of plastic in amusing shapes.
Drumm bought a kit a couple of years ago because he wanted to be "the first family on our block to have a 3-D printer," he said. After assembling the machine, a complicated task that required a knowledge of soldering, he and his 6-year-old son managed to print a bottle opener. "It took 45 minutes and it was kind of crappy, but I was encouraged," Drumm said. "OK, we're doing this at our kitchen table."
It's a sentiment Pettis hopes other parents will share. He is betting they will buy 3-D printers for their children, despite the current limitations, in the same way his family purchased a Commodore 64 home computer back in the early 1980s. The machines represent the future, he said, and "for the cost of a laptop" they offer "an education in manufacturing."
Still, at $2,200, a Replicator 2 costs more than most laptops, and in this sluggish economy, one imagines families could find more essential uses for that money.
When he was designing the Printrbot, that was one of the things Drumm had in mind. He wanted the kit to be easy to assemble and to require no soldering, he said, but most of all he wanted it to be cheap. "It became obvious to me that it can't be $1,200 or even $800," he said. He settled on a price of about $550.
"People don't know what they're going to do with it," he added. "I just say, 'This is such a new technology. Get your feet wet.'"
Hearing Drumm recount his initial forays into 3-D printing, or watching the Replicator 2 print a brightly colored doodad, one is reminded of another Apple commercial, one that ran a few years before the Dick Cavett spot. In the ad, a synthesized voice touted all the things families could do with a home computer, like "create dazzling color displays" on their TV and "invent their own Pong games." Given the myriad uses we've since found for home computers, and how indispensable they have become, the ad is almost absurdly quaint.
Max Lobovsky, one of the creators of the Form 1, a desktop 3-D printer that is stunning in both its design and printing quality, said the home 3-D printer was at a similarly protozoan evolutionary stage. "It's not just about technology or reducing costs," Lobovsky said. "The machines need to be easier to use, more capable and offer more applications in the home. I think all of those things are missing today."
He and his partner, Natan Linder, envisioned the Form 1, which sells for around $3,300, as an affordable 3-D printer for professionals. Last September, they raised more than $2.9 million on Kickstarter, proof of the enthusiasm in the marketplace. They see 3-D printing technology working its way down from corporations to smaller companies to the engineers, architects and crafters at whom the Form 1 is aimed.
"There are a few more levels," Lobovsky said, "before we get to every single household."
It may only be a matter of time until a 3-D printer shares shelf space in the home with the laptop or TV, and of course Pettis already has a Replicator 2 on his coffee table in New York. But at the moment, the most common place to find a desktop 3-D printer may be at a hacker space, where hobbyists gather to share tips and troubleshoot what can be glitchy machines to operate.
Consider 2-D printers with their paper jams and low-toner warnings, then remember that most 3-D printers use hot plastic and don't come with an office repairman.
Hack Manhattan holds a weekly event called 3-D Thursday in its narrow second-floor workroom on 14th Street. One evening last month David Reeves and Justin Levinson, two club members, sat huddled around a printer Reeves had built using plans available free online. Its exposed wires and bare rod frame gave the machine the look of a homely science fair entry, but the bit-like extruder circled with the quick, precise movements of a hummingbird, printing layer by plastic layer.
In a mind-bending technology feedback loop, Reeves, a research scientist who likes to tinker, was using his 3-D printer to make parts to build another 3-D printer.
Nearby, Matthew Duepner was hoping to get tips on modifying the Printrbot Jr. kit he had bought for $400 at a fair and has been testing in his bedroom. A 15-year-old high school sophomore at the Professional Children's School, Duepner learned about 3-D printing at a workshop at MIT, he said, and "just fell in love with it."
He was excited because he had recently found a Long Island source for cheap plastic, the 3-D equivalent of printer ink. "You should see the spool," he said. "It's like as big as me. Dude, it's crazy."
Levinson, an editor at Makeshift, a magazine that spotlights creativity, said he can think of at least one practical use for a 3-D printer: The burner on his mother's oven is broken and she can no longer get a replacement part. "Entire objects are rendered useless because a stupid piece of plastic broke," he said. Being able to print a new one, he added, "makes the life cycle of objects a lot longer."
But Levinson doesn't have a 3-D printer at home, and perhaps he's wise to hold off for now.
Another visitor, Jim Galvin, a lighting programmer for film and television, said he spent around $1,100 for a Cupcake, an early MakerBot model. It came in handy when he printed an iPhone holder for his car. Even so, he complained, "anything I've printed I've printed at least eight times to get right," and the Cupcake malfunctioned often. "I became a 3-D printer mechanic, and that's not what I wanted to be." (A Replicator 2 sitting on a shelf at Hack Manhattan, with a sign taped to it reading "Not Working! Do Not Use," suggests that MakerBot's latest model isn't glitch-proof either.)
Still, the iPhone holder Galvin made seemed to demonstrate 3-D printing's potential. Because he uses two protective cases, his phone is too wide to fit inside a standard holder — a problem that may be unique to Galvin, and one he was able to solve with his 3-D printer. "That's what I think is so exciting about 3-D printing," he said. "Whatever you need, all that stuff you want to make, you can make."
It was clear that despite the technical challenges and costs, everyone in the room was as enthusiastic about the technology as Galvin. Throughout the evening, they debated the various types of plastic, shared operating tips and new developments they had seen or heard (Duepner described one model that printed pancake batter) and speculated on how 3-D printing will bring about the revolution Obama foreshadowed in his speech.
If you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine yourself standing in a room in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, listening to the early programmers sing the praises of the personal computer. We all know how that turned out.