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3-D Printers: Separating Hype From Reality

Although 3-D printers likely will become a common household gadget in the years ahead, they don’t deliver enough benefits in 2013 to justify their high prices.

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MakerBot Industries

When someone describes how a home printer that creates three-dimensional objects works, it likely summons “golly, gee” images of instantly teleporting solid objects from one place to another. When you see how a home 3-D printer works, however, a more likely reaction is: “Golly, gee, that thing sure is slow, and what it makes doesn’t look much like I thought that it would.”

That’s how we summarize the difference between 3-D printing’s hype and its reality. The 3-D printers that are marketed for home use today arrived in 2012, but they’re too unreliable, costly, imprecise and slow to serve as more than an indulgence for artists or hobbyists, experts tell Consumers Digest.

Although 3-D printers have the potential to become an affordable, common and useful household device, that potential likely won’t be realized for at least 10 years, which is how long it might take to resolve all of the aforementioned obstacles, industry experts say. In addition, legal issues must be untangled before 3-D printers can deliver on what we believe to be one of their most appealing promises—the capability to create replacement parts for common goods, such as appliances and other household products.

NEW DIMENSIONS. You likely have encountered broadcast or print stories that tout the fascinating capabilities of 3-D printers. The microwave-oven-size devices make objects out of plastic (although some build with layers of paper). Computer programs allow you to download templates from the Internet, which the printer then turns into objects.

However, the most precise and significant objects that 3-D printers make apply to commercial use, such as medical equipment, architectural models and even airplane parts, rather than consumer use. For instance, a 3-D printer helped to save a 3-month-old boy’s life when the printer was used to create a plastic tube to support his collapsing airway. Also, beachgoers can buy customized sunglasses online that are made by 3-D printers.

Unfortunately, the 3-D printers that are used for commercial applications cost at least $15,000, according to market-research company IBISWorld. That price increases significantly when you add features, such as the capability to print large objects. For instance, a Stratasys Fortus 900mc printer, which can build objects that are as large as a 50-inch TV frame, costs nearly $400,000.

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What’s changing is that manufacturers are marketing 3-D printers to consumers. In June 2013, Staples became the first chain retail store to sell a 3-D printer, and Amazon.com created an online store for 3-D printers and supplies. You’ll pay $800–$3,000 for a 3-D printer that’s marketed for home use, but all of them are no more than a gadget that’s suitable for artists or hobbyists who are more interested in replicating objects than in replacing product parts.

“As a general consumer product, 3-D printers are still on the bleeding edge of technological maturity,” says Tim Caffrey, who is a consultant at technology market-research company Wohlers Associates. Consumers who are used to the reliability of a conventional document printer will be disappointed by the results of today’s consumer 3-D printers, Caffrey says.

One of the problems of a consumer 3-D printer is the quality of the print, or build. Objects that are made with the least expensive 3-D printers are prone to look warped, twisted and marred by holes. Models that cost less than $15,000 lack the precision that commercial 3-D printers deliver. Features that can improve the precision aren’t available for use on consumer 3-D printers, because they’re protected by patents, Caffrey says.

For example, patents restrict heated build chambers that reduce the distortion of printed objects. Caffrey says it’s impossible to predict when such features will become available on consumer models, because inventors employ a series of patents on each technology that’s designed to protect intellectual property for as long as possible. When advanced features become available, they will add to the cost of the consumer models. However, other costs likely will come down during the same time, so it’s unlikely that consumer 3-D printers will become more expensive.

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