3-D printers: A fun concept now priced for small-business owners

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Most consumers likely never have used—or heard of—a 3-D printer, but it’s something that small-business owners might find useful, particularly because pricing has drifted down into the consumer range.

Product designers often use 3-D printing technology to create prototypes of new products. The designer sends a computer-generated blueprint of the product to the printer. Some 3-D printers spray layers of liquid resin in the same way that an inkjet printer sprays ink. The liquid resin hardens to create the prototype.

Bruce Bradshaw, who is a spokesperson for 3-D printing-systems provider Objet, tells Consumers Digest that his company’s 3-D printer has been used to fashion prototypes of elements of toothbrushes, alarm clocks and smartphones. “Between the time that you wake up in the morning until the time you have your sandwich at lunch, you have been impacted by 3-D printing, 10 times at a minimum,” Bradshaw says.

Objet’s least expensive commercial 3-D printer costs $19,000, but 3-D printers that Bits from Bytes makes range from $1,241 to $3,877, and a MakerBot Industries Thing-O-Matic 3-D printer costs $1,300. Although MakerBot Industries’ 3-D printer is geared toward designers and hobbyists, consumers can use the 3-D technology to design objects from home. A video on the company’s website shows an example of a Thing-O-Matic owner who created shower-curtain rings.

No major printer manufacturers currently make 3-D-technology models for the masses. A spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard says that although HP makes 3-D printers for commercial use, it doesn’t have plans to introduce 3-D home printers to the consumer market.

Bradshaw believes that another option could emerge for consumers over the next decade: a 3-D “service bureau” that would be available through a local print-services outlet where a consumer hands the staff member a file and a prototype can be printed out.

– K. Fanuko