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A MakerBot 3-D printer prints a model house.

New York Times ,

Brook Drumm

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3-D printers: The appliance of the future?

  • Article by: STEVEN KURUTZ
  • New York Times
  • February 25, 2013 - 5:08 PM

In his State of the Union address, along with the standard calls for education reform and energy independence, President 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 coffeemaker. “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.

Like computers, 3-D printers 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 a replacement part.

Bre Pettis, 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.

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 dimensions of a microwave oven that sells for about $2,200, are constantly printing, turning files created on Trimble SketchUp and other computer-aided design software into things like architecture models or smartphone cases.

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.

It’s a sentiment Pettis hopes other parents will share. He is betting they will buy 3-D printers for their children, in the same way his family purchased a Commodore 64 home computer 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. 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.

It may only be a matter of time until a 3-D printer shares shelf space in the home with the laptop or TV. 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 the sometimes glitchy machines.

Hack Manhattan holds a weekly event called 3-D Thursday. One recent evening club members David Reeves and Justin Levinson huddled around a printer Reeves had built using plans available free online. Its exposed wires and bare rod frame gave it the look of a science fair entry, but the bit-like extruder circled with the quick, precise movements of a hummingbird, printing layer by plastic layer.

In a technology feedback loop, Reeves was using his 3-D printer to make parts to build another 3-D printer.

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.

© 2014 Star Tribune