As it turns out, it doesn't matter how useful or necessary you think a basic desktop 3D printer is (or isn't). There is a demand for them, and it's huge. A recent Kickstarter campaign has proven that if you make 3D printers cheap enough, people will snatch them up -- in 11 minutes, to be precise.
That's how long it took the $299 Micro 3D printer Kickstarter campaign to reach its $50,000 goal (it was priced at $199 for the first backers). In 24 hours, the campaign raised more than $1 million from more than 5,000 backers. Now, with 25 days left to go, The Micro 3D Printer has raised more than $2.3 million.
As industrial 3D printing has taken off, there has been some skepticism about the importance of home 3D printing. Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, the largest maker of 3D printing modeling tools, said during his keynote at the Inside 3D Printing Conference that he is completely unconvinced home 3D printing will catch on.
"I think we have way overvalued consumer 3D printing," Bass said.
He added that more interest is in accessing and experiencing new technology, not necessarily owning it. For 3D printing, he said, the trend is moving toward utilizing platforms such as Shapeways and Thingiverse, which allow people to download, tweak, and share designs before printing them at home or sending them off to a third party to print.
More than 7,000 Kickstarter backers beg to differ.
The Micro 3D printer, made by Bethesda, Maryland-based M3D, is one of the cheapest yet, and the one that looks the most like a consumer product, and people are noticing. The cube-shaped printer is 7 inches tall. It weighs 2 pounds. It uses ABS and PLA plastics made by the company, but also supports standard filament rolls. Each half-pound M3D filament can make about 45 small plastic vases (or something of that size), which are shown in this Kickstarter video. It has a USB port and works with any Windows, Mac, or Linux system. The backers will receive their printers from late summer to mid-2015, and worldwide distribution will begin after that.
"We image people bringing their ideas to life, from starting a business, education, learning to design and create, personalizing products, making toys, making jewelry, creating chocolate moulds, and even running a modern workshop," said M3D co-founder David Jones. "The possibilities are really unique to each individual and we can't wait to see what they do with it. One thing is for sure, they'll do things with it we never imagined."
To get the price so low, M3D reduced the power consumption by a factor of 10 compared to professional 3D printers. The cost dropped since it was much lighter and the electronics were more affordable, the founders said.
Will the size and material of the Micro cause quality to suffer? Maybe, said researchers at Forrester. But these types of printers haven't been around long enough to demonstrate durability and lifespan.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the printer is its simple software. The biggest issue with 3D printing thus far has been its unintuitive software. The Micro has a touch-screen interface on which users can access a database of objects, download them to a library on the machine, and click "print." It also allows access to open source software on the internet.
Jones and his co-founder, Michael Armani, said they believe the platforms already in place will work seamlessly with the printer.
"Our software allows our users to search, find and browse existing model databases more effectively and easily than ever before," Jones said. "There are existing databases out there already, and the number of parts available is only to increase as our user base makes the 3D printing market explode."
Software like this is important for the technology to expand beyond technical hobbyists, said Sophia Vargas, a researcher at Forrester who focuses on 3D printing.
"I think accessible design software will increase the number of content creators, and consequently increase the volume and diversity of available content in online marketplaces," Vargas said.
This feature has the potential to radically change the 3D printing game, but researchers still say it will be a few years before home 3D printing really catches on.
"Kickstarter campaigns like this will continue raising interest from a broader range of consumers," said Michael Yamnitsky, a researcher at Forrester. "But until the ecosystem components including software, and content develop, most consumers will be non-technical users will be frustrated with the experience. Some of these printers will be sitting, collecting dust."
Time will tell. But right now, the investments and demand for The Micro are still rising.
"The market was really waiting for a printer that's plug and play and just works as people just want to hit the print button and enjoy the experience," Jones said. "That's exactly how we see The Micro and with that we think it finally makes 3D printing an experience anyone can enjoy."
- The missing link in 3D printing: User-friendly software
- Photos: Outrageous creations from the latest 3D printing event
- Autodesk CEO 'debunks the hype' on 3D printing, says industrial 3D printing is the real revolution
- 3D printing: 10 companies using it in ground-breaking ways
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.