Few people expect 3D printing--particularly in the home--to be as much of a revolution as it actually could be. Whether it's Foxconn's boss or industry journalists, people seem to think this is some kind of hobby phenomenon. Kind of the way homebrew computers were in the 1970s, before they changed absolutely everything.
But the household economics of 3D printing, when considered more academically, suggest that relatively low-tech 3-D printers in the home of the average user can equate to incredible high cash savings for a family's bottom line.
Researchers from Michigan Technical University set out to approach the idea of a home 3-D printer from a satisfyingly tangential perspective. Instead of starting with the commonly expressed position "I can't imagine what one would need a 3-D printer at home for" they instead found 20 items that could be useful for the home that are already listed on the Thingiverse 3-D objects database--objects like a chess piece, a fruit juicer, and shower curtain clips. They printed these objects on a simple FDM-type home 3-D printer and then calculated the effective cost of producing the objects in this way in terms of print time, energy use, and consumption of plastic filament. They then compared the totals to the typical cost bracket a consumer could expect to pay for the same 20 items in stores.
The results may surprise you. 3-D printing the 20 chosen objects cost only about $20 and took around 25 hours. In a store, depending on the quality of the products chosen, the same items would cost between $300 and about $2,000. Assuming the average family would only print about 20 objects of similar practical utility in a year, a printer like a RepRap would pay for itself in savings in just about four years.
That's impressive enough, but the team points out that there's not much of a question of wear and tear on a printer at such low output levels, and even if there is a cost associated with wear, in a design like RepRap replacement parts that do wear out can be printed on the printer itself. It's also worth remembering that 3-D printing is a two-part process, with the hardware being driven by a suite of algorithms that determine the printing process. These algorithms are constantly being tweaked and thus it's possible that the efficiency and quality of output of 3-D printers can even go up as time passes.
Think about what 20 simple items you have recently bought, and consider the implications of this research. Just this weekend I found myself longing for a 3-D printer because I wanted a simple plastic lid to stop cat food from smelling in the refrigerator. No local shops stocked one, and though I also did other shopping it took a considerable time to find one in a distant supermarket--with the product costing me €1.50. If I had a 3-D printer I could've quickly created a 3-D model, or found one online, and printed it out for a tiny fraction of that cost.
Meanwhile 3-D scanning, the counterpart tech of 3-D printing in terms of home usefulness, is becoming easier all the time thanks to innovations like the Fuel3D 3-D scanner Kickstarter project. This is a "point and shoot" 3-D scanner that should cost less than $1,000 to buy and which indicates that in the near future consumer-ready 3-D scanners should be available. Developments of this type mean that 3-D printing at home, where one either creates an object to print, finds a version online, or scans a pre-existing object that you perhaps intend to replace, is already an economically sensible proposition. Then take this idea and imagine what it would mean if your local corner store had a printer, even if your home didn't?
The practical upshot of these innovations from an industry point of view is significant. If your product is in some way applicable to 3-D modeling, 3-D scanning, or 3-D printing--even if you're simply planning to make objects like simple toys, tchotchkes, or novelty items like a 3-D printed business card--then don't hold back. With 3-D printers costing less than $300 hitting the market, there's going to be space for developers to sell software, improve algorithms, try out nefarious things, and even invent whole new classes of product. That is, if you have faith in the 3-D printing revolution.
[Image: Flickr user Mirko Tobias Schaefer]