If you are like me, you have been watching the 3D printer space with much enthusiasm in anticipation of the moment when consumer-friendly 3D printers make their way to market at a price Joe Public can truly afford.
There has definitely been some traction in achieving that goal. Makerbot, the best-known maker of 3D printers for enthusiasts, has been steadily releasing models that raise the functionality and appeal more to the mainstream. And we recently reported on 3D Systems putting its stake in the ground with the Cube, its $1,299 consumer 3D printer offering.
Now there's a new kid on the consumer 3D printer block: Solidoodle, founded by Sam Cervantes, a former aerospace engineer who served a stint at MakerBot. His startup has just released its self-named printer, with a base price of $499.
The $499 Solidoodle is fully assembled and supports a slightly bigger build area (six inches cubed) than its predecessor. (Source: Solidoodle)
The second version of the pre-assembled printer has been refined to offer a bigger build area (six inches cubed, where the original model sported four inches cubed), and it weighs just 17 pounds. The technology, according to specs on the Website, is Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) -- another way of saying Thermoplastic Extrusion -- and it uses a 1.75mm plastic filament (ABS recommended), which costs $45 for a two-pound spool.
Solidoodle is based on the RepRap Sanguinololu v1.3a Electronics open-source 3D printer project. Accuracy, according to the documentation, is about 0.3mm (layer height) or 84dpi, but officials say it's possible to achieve 0.1mm in some cases. Cervantes says the printer software can accept models from any design tool that produces an STL file, meaning that it could be used with most popular CAD programs.
In a video explaining the product (shown below), Cervantes said his company's goal is to make 3D printers more affordable and easier to use than before. So far, the unit's been put to work to output everything from children's toys, popular household items, and architectural models to what Cervantes said is the favorite print: the bottle opener.
With entries like Solidoodle, the Cube, and even the still-to-be released Origo (a sub-$1,000 3D printer for kids we covered previously) pushing down the price point, it's only a matter of time before the decision to buy a 3D printer is no different than the decision to buy an office printer. And that's when the creative games will begin.
@Scott. I agree that getting these printers in schools is paramount, both to their success and as a key tool for pushing STEM and giving kids innovation power. I don't think we're that far off from that. I've seen reports about a bunch of schools adopting these printers through grants or some sort of funding. And as the prices come down, it will just get more so. When my kids started elementary school eight years ago, there were no smart boards in their classrooms. Now almost every class has one and we do not live in a rich district. As prices come down, these technologies become mainstream. It's the usual cycle.
Beth. Thanks for staying on top of this industry. I for one think it's very exciting to go from an idea on paper to a physical part in your hand, cheaply and quickly. This capability has the potential to excite a new generation of designers and inventors by giving them rapid development tools. Imagine what tools like this might do in the hands and minds of high schools students for example. Let the designs begin!
If the 3D printer marketplace dynamics mimic the 2D printer marketplace, several years from now, we will start to see cheaper and cheaper 3D printers coming out of Asia and other low cost regions. I remember a time when the first HP laserjet printers were introduced into the market and were built mostly in the United States. Soon afterwards, we started seeing this technology being manufactured from Asian countries. I wouldn't be surprised if the lower end 3D printers start to go this route also.
I agree with Dave and Beth. The inexpensive 3D printer will find a niche. There are tons of small gadget makers out there who would drool over the ability to create prototypes. While Heathkit may have failed, it's not for lack of creative, inventive souls who could use an affordable 3D printer to bring their ideas to life.
@naperlou: I don't think you can make a comparison between traditional printers and 3D printers. It's true that people, especially young people, are increasingly comfortable reading things from a screen, and thus have less need for "dead trees." Design News itself is a great example of this. I still get the paper edition, but I spend more time with the online edition, largely because of the ability to have discussions like this one.
But a physical object is fundamentally different from a document or a visual representation. Words and pictures can be read either on a page or on a screen. Ultimately, it's a matter of preference. But 3D printers allow you to produce actual things which you can hold in your hand.
Philosophers have spent the past several thousand years discussing what an object is, but I think most of them would agree that there is a difference between an object and its representation. That's the difference between 3D printers and traditional printers.
This printer is definitely going on my wish list -- but since, like you, I have one kid in high school and another in college, right now I have a lot of other expenses which take priority over all the neat toys I might like to have.
@Naperlou: I see your point about moving away from hard copy output, but I think there is a difference between printing out a page of content that you'll then throw away with having a pseudo, low-cost manufacturing mechanism to output your ideas for cool gadgets and stuff. Perhaps the newness factor will eventually fade, but for folks who haven't been exposed to the wonders of 3D printing, I would think they'd dive in just for the experience.
@Nadine: I know there is a slightly higher-priced version with a cover (less industrial looking) and some added bells and whistles, but I don't know about additional add-ons after that. There is the cost of the material, which I think I said was $45 per spool.
Good point naperlou. There's more consumer perceived value in experience today. "It's not what you have, it's what you do." I don't see this being used in homes. Small businesses and start-ups can benefit.
A $500 base price makes me wonder what's the real final cost. Are adds-ons necessary? What's do they cost?
Beth, these are iteresting things, but they are bucking a trend I am seeing. What I am reffering to is printing. What I notice is that I do not print much (and it is not for a lack of printers). My two teen age sons don't either. One is in high school and the other in college. The college student get most, if not all of his textbooks in .pdf form. He reada them on his Kindle. The trend in books and magazies is toward electronic editions.
So, while I think there is some really interesting stuff going on in the area of 3D printing, I am not sure that an inexpensive home version will really take off. When holographic displays become feasible, that will put another dent in the market. That day is not far off either. We have become consumers of information, not stuff, believe it or not.
MIT students modified a 3D printer to enable it to print more than one object and print on top of existing printed objects. All of this was made possible by modifying a Solidoodle with a height measuring laser.
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