The ability to print out objects within one's home — a replacement oven knob, snowflake ornament, cellphone case — has been among this century's most intriguing promises, thanks to the advent of consumer 3-D printers.
The hyped bet: Soon every home will harbor such a printer — but for what real purpose? Certainly, kids have a blast with these gadgets, printing out an anatomical heart for a science project, or for fun, a Bat-signal that attaches to cellphone flashlights. Other users create items for home businesses, churning out jewelry, art and decor.
I decided to test the promise of these machines by using a 3-D printer for six weeks in my home. What would I make?
The MakerBot Replicator printer arrives ($2,899; a new model is priced $400 less). Setup takes about two hours. The machine, the size of an oversized microwave oven, sits on my kitchen table. I call it the beast.
Suggested initial prints include an earbud case, and a model of the Supreme Court building (the maximum build height is about six inches).
Instead, I peruse objects on Thingiverse, an online catalog of 2 million user-created designs all for no-cost download and print. I choose Mr. Jaws, a shark-shaped bag clip (jaws and teeth clamp the bag).
After downloading the file and tweaking size and print resolution in an app, an orange Mr. Jaws prints out in about 30 minutes. Success! During printing, I can't tear my eyes from the precise cyborg-like passes as the device honeycombs successive layers of plastic to build the object.
Weeks 2 and 3
I print out a nut and bolt. I know that sounds lame, but the fact that I can do this on my kitchen table seems moderately miraculous — manufacturing democratized.
I advance to printing a double elliptical gear — center arms that gear to two teethed wheels, and then for fun, a small heart that's inset with a removable puzzle piece that reads in raised letters: "a piece of my heart." I make several, and give them to friends; a few question why the lettering is skewed.
"But I made it myself," I protest.
"It's plastic," a neighbor replies.
Undaunted, I begin to download a Ghostbusters Proton Pack Neutron Thrower but the print time (literally days for the various parts) dissuades me. Also, my printer-beast sounds like a droid with its loud squeaks, beeps and squawks. It's like living with R2-D2 — who never shuts off.
Living with a robot, in fact, had me wondering about electrical costs, which I discovered were roughly equivalent to a laptop charger. Two-pound filament spools cost $48 and last about three to six months depending on usage. Average users replace the machine's $199 sophisticated hot glue gun (the extruder) two to three times over a three- to five-year span, after which time, well, it's time to buy the latest model. This technology moves fast.
I print out a five-inch-tall knee joint, wrap it as a gift, and present it to a hospitalized friend who just had his knee replaced. It just seemed the right thing to do. Besides anatomy, other Thingiverse categories include: art, tools, toys and games, gadgets, fashion and household objects.
Weeks 5 and 6
I experiment with Thingiverse's customizer, loading a photo of a friend's baby for print on a keychain that has a flat pane for printing raised images. But the photo's printout looks like a blob.
I try a vase. That process goes well, but the machine scripts a roof over the vase's top, enclosing it. Tech support suggests that I cancel the print just before the roof prints, which sounds "somewhat primitive," the tech guy admits.
The primitive note is a good one to conclude on –– since for me, home-based 3-D printing seems at once a marvel, but also coarse with its lengthy print times and noise. I merely toyed with the machine for its novelty without finding a conclusive use for it.
For me, having a 3-D printer around the house was a bit like owning a noisy droid that lacks a program that would give it purpose.
But that Bat-signal for my cellphone flashlight does sound intriguing.