3d Printers Can Already Save Consumers Money

Posted on July 31, 2013  Comments (5)

I first wrote about 3d printing at home here, on the Curious Cat Engineering blog, in 2007. Revolutionary technology normally takes quite a while to actually gain mainstream viability. I am impressed how quickly 3d printing has moved and am getting more convinced we are underestimating the impact. The quality of the printing is improving amazingly quickly.

3d printed objects

As is so often the case these day, our broken patent system is delaying innovation in our society. For 3d printing there is a good argument the delays due to the innovation crippling way that system is operating today will be avoided as critical 3d patents expire in 2014. Patents can aid society but the current system is not, instead it is causing society great harm and delaying us being able to use new innovations.

“For the average American consumer, 3D printing is ready for showtime,” said Associate Professor Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University.

3D printers deposit multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make almost anything, from toys to tools to kitchen gadgets. Free designs that direct the printers are available by the tens of thousands on websites like Thingiverse (a wonderful site). Visitors can download designs to make their own products using open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, which you build yourself from printed parts, or those that come in a box ready to print, from companies like Type-A Machines.

3D printers have been the purview of a relative few aficionados, but that is changing fast, Pearce said. The reason is financial: the typical family can already save a great deal of money by making things with a 3D printer instead of buying them off the shelf.

In the study, Pearce and his team chose 20 common household items listed on Thingiverse. Then they used Google Shopping to determine the maximum and minimum cost of buying those 20 items online, shipping charges not included.

Next, they calculated the cost of making them with 3D printers. The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 to buy those 20 things compared to $18 to make them in a weekend.

Open-source 3D printers for home use have price tags ranging from about $350 to $2,000. Making the very conservative assumption a family would only make 20 items a year, Pearce’s group calculated that the printers would pay for themselves quickly, in a few months to a few years.

The group chose relatively inexpensive items for their study: cellphone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, a spoon holder, and the like. 3D printers can save consumers even more money on high-end items like customized orthotics and photographic equipment.

3D printing isn’t quite as simple as 2D printing a document from your home computer—yet. “But you don’t need to be an engineer or a professional technician to set up a 3D printer,” Pearce said. “Some can be set up in under half an hour, and even the RepRap can be built in a weekend by a reasonably handy do-it-yourselfer.”

It’s not just about the money. 3D printing may herald a new world that offers consumers many more choices as everything can be customized. “With the exponential growth of free designs and expansion of 3D printing, we are creating enormous potential wealth for everyone.” explains Pearce.

Before 3D printers become as ubiquitous as cellphones, they could form the basis of small-scale manufacturing concerns and have huge potential both here and for developing countries, where access to many products is limited.

“Say you are in the camping supply business and you don’t want to keep glow-in-the-dark tent stakes in stock,” Pearce said. “Just keep glow-in-the-dark plastic on hand, and if somebody needs those tent stakes, you can print them.”

“It would be a different kind of capitalism, where you don’t need a lot of money to create wealth for yourself or even start a business,” Pearce said.

The study is described in the article “Life-Cycle Economic Analysis of Distributed Manufacturing with Open-Source 3D Printers” (see full press release).

Related: 3D Printing is Here (2009)Great 3D Printing Presentation by a 10 year old (2011)Introduction Video on 3D Printing (2013)

5 Responses to “3d Printers Can Already Save Consumers Money”

  1. Frank Bevl
    August 25th, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    Hi John

    Looks interesting. The only reason I’m still wary about 3D printers is that I believe they will just result in a huge amount of clutter in my house. I’d probably be printing stuff just for the sake of it – stuff I’d never need to use anyway. And then all this stuff would just sit there… fells to me like the ultimate home-cluttering device. Not to mention the printer itself is quite large and will take up even more space.

    Maybe in the future once the technology is more advanced and it can be actually used to “print” (it’s not printing anymore, it’s a mini-factory) useful stuff that I don’t already have at my home, then I’ll go for it.

  2. Sven Meuleman
    November 23rd, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    Wow, I didn’t know a lot of patents will be expiring in 2014. I am really waiting for SLS at home. The current methods for 3D printing at home don’t really give me enough quality and the materials are too limited.

  3. Tyson
    January 14th, 2014 @ 7:46 am

    I agree, the impact of this technology is consistently under valued! The ramifications are absolutely huge and very wide reaching.

    I really can’t wait to see what things will be capable with this technology as it progresses.

  4. 26 Most Influential Science Bloggers | ژورنال مهندسی
    January 18th, 2014 @ 7:36 am

    […] education to animals and robots. As a matter of fact, I just finished reading his article about 3D printing - a technology that is on a fast track to becoming the next best thing! And since John posts […]

  5. Noah Hornberger
    January 21st, 2015 @ 4:54 am

    I own 3 3d printers now and can’t seem to stop the revolution. I keep posting my 3d artwork online and end up getting floods of positive response and orders. So now I am actually ready to quit my day job to jump into 3d printing full time.

    I’m 3d printing some valve connectors for automatic soap dispensers that will go into the state penitentiary as I type this. I never knew this kind of work would come in when I started. My printers have some quirks and sometimes break down, so there is room for the technology to grow. But it seems the market for on-demand novelties and small plastic parts is at an all time high.

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