Here's justification for splurging on a cool new 3D printer: It's actually a money saver.
Buying a 3D printer to make plastic iPhone cases and paper-towel holders at home can already save you money in the long run, according to a new study. That doesn't mean 3D printers will soon replace stores, let alone shut down factories in China or Vietnam. But it does suggest how the technology is creating a world where you could eventually make many products at home or at a local shop.
Printing money (savings)
A 3D printer such as the open-source RepRap may not only pay for itself but actually save money by making just 20 household items — such as shower-curtain rings and safety razors — per year, said Joshua Pearce, a materials engineer at Michigan Technological University. His new study, wordily titled "Life-Cycle Economic Analysis of Distributed Manufacturing with Open-Source 3D Printers," challenges the skepticism of big manufacturers and the caution of 3D-printing experts who say the technology still has a long way to go.
"Today, we have the ability to print plastic, which actually opens up an enormous catalog containing thousands of products that we all have in our homes and use every day," Pearce said in an email. "The material selection is expanding quickly, and it seems likely that for many products, consumers will make their own rather than purchasing them."
RepRap 3D-printer owners could save anywhere between $300 and $2,000 per year, depending on what 20 household items they make, Pearce found. RepRap owners can also continually upgrade their open-source 3D printer over time — even printing new components — as the technology improves, rather than having to buy a new 3D printer every few years.
Other costs of 3D printing
Despite these benefits, an open-source 3D printer is a big DIY project. A RepRap costs not only $575 for the parts but also about 24 hours of work to assemble them. And a beginner might need to first learn how to build it through workshops or online instructions. However, newbies can pay about double the price for an assembled RepRap. (That's still a bargain compared to highly polished models like the $2,199 MakerBot Replicator 2.)
Moreover, you shouldn't expect a 3D-printed plastic iPhone case, for example, to have the same quality or polish as a store-bought case. Today's 3D printers still create objects with very tiny steps or ridges on the sides rather than a smooth curve or finish. Pearce pointed out that you could smooth the object with nail-polish remover and paint it, but that's yet more work.
"Is the quality of the 3D-printed products on par with those that are manufactured conventionally and then purchased? No, not even close,” said Terry Wohlers, head of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm focused on 3D printing.
Challenges for 3D printing
Today's 3D printers can make products tailored to unusual shapes and unique customer demands — they're good for making a limited run of expensive fighter-jet parts or a custom implant to repair a shattered skull (both have already happened). Yet the technology remains unable to produce objects made from multiple materials, and is too slow and too expensive for making many products, Wohlers said.
"Very inexpensive and relatively simple mass-produced products [such as plastic trash cans] will continue to be manufactured in big centers of manufacturing for a long time," Wohlers told Tom's Guide. "These types of parts, with production volumes of hundreds of thousands or millions, are not good candidates for 3D printing due to speed and cost."
Nobody has done a conclusive study comparing the cost of 3D printing plastic parts locally to the cost of making plastic parts in a Chinese factory and shipping them around the world, Wohlers explained. But he and other experts believe that the factory model is still easily competitive with 3D printing. Part of the reason is that industrial-grade 3D printing requires more energy per item than traditional manufacturing does.
How 3D printing could go mainstream
But Richard D'Aveni, a professor of strategic management at Dartmouth University, says 3D-printing technology could improve rapidly over the next 10 to 15 years, to the point where it can compete with factory-made products. He compared the process to how PCs took over from mainframe computers in less than 10 years.
But D'Aveni, too, said that 3D printers have a way to go in order to become must-have household gadgets.
"You can make toys you expect to find in a McDonalds Happy Meal, but I think that it won't really appeal to people to buy a $300 or $400 machine [among the cheapest of today's 3D printers] to make Happy Meal toys," D'Aveni said. "The quality must go up, and the price of the machine must come down."
Yet 3D printing already offers other ways to compete with factory-made products, D'Aveni said. 3D printing allows you, the customer, to tweak the final design of a product and make it on the spot. D'Aveni gave the example of how toy stores might someday offer custom-made dolls with unique features — even based on a 3D scan of the customer's face or body. (One company, 3D Systems, already allows you to make customized 3D printed Star Trek action figures.)
A clever engineer might also design an array of simple 3D-printed parts that snap together as easily as Legos, to make bigger or more complex objects such as chairs and storage cabinets, D'Aveni said. It's a 3D-printing spin on the IKEA self-assembled-furniture process.
Order and print anywhere
The ability to print something almost anywhere also represents a huge advantage for 3D printing over factories — a benefit the U.S. military has recognized by putting 3D printers on ships and in distant battlefields to create prototype equipment and perhaps someday make replacement parts for vehicles.
Worldwide delivery company DHL is already thinking about how 3D printing might change where and how people buy products in the future. A 2012 report (pdf) by DHL considered the possibility of a "customized lifestyles" scenario for 2050 — a world where 3D printing in homes or local stores mostly replaces mass-production factories. In such a world, only raw materials and digital designs would cross national borders.
One small glimpse of that future is already possible through Kraftwurx, a Houston-based company that runs a digital marketplace for selling and ordering simple 3D-printed products, such as metal jewelry and plastic figurines, around the world. Kraftwurx's network of more than 100 3D-printing companies worldwide allows buyers and sellers to avoid international shipping costs and taxes on imported goods.
3D printing breakthroughs
That future could creep closer as 3D-printing technology begins to break through its current limits. 3D-printing companies continue to work on making cheaper, user-friendly 3D printers. Better software could allow more people to create and upload 3D-printer designs to share or sell online, or simply make it easier to print out items.
So what does this all mean for now? The 3D-printed watchband or showerhead you make at home today may not match the quality or aesthetic of a similar item bought on Amazon or at the local store. But if you have the time, money and patience to invest in a 3D printer, you can already begin saving money today, as long as the quality of 3D-printed items is good enough for you.
"Are consumers going to be willing to continue to pay $50 for an iPad stand if they can make one themselves for under a dollar or buy [a 3D-printed stand] on eBay for $2?” Pearce said.