How close are we to 3-D printing emerging from its hobbyist, DIY roots and becoming a full-fledged manufacturing revolution? We’re about to find out, with the opening of the first-ever retail 3-D printer store by Brooklyn-based MakerBot. In many ways, the New York City MakerBot retail store is as much about introducing the concept of 3-D printing to the consumer masses as it is showcasing the company's new $2,199 Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer to the city’s tech elite.
The store, located in the very heart of Manhattan’s trendy NoHo neighborhood near the newly-revitalized Bowery, feels more like a high-end design store or gallery than it does a retail technology store. Unlike, say, an Apple retail store, people don’t really know where to start or what questions to ask. A mix of neighborhood hipsters, technology early adopters and designers mill about, checking out the 3-D printed objects available for sale while the helpful sales staff in black t-shirts remind everyone that they are allowed to pick up and touch the items.
Judging by the variety of items for sale in the store (and on MakerBot’s Web site: Thingiverse), the possible directions that a consumer 3-D printing revolution could take appear endless. In addition to the Replicator 2 — a glowing machine of high tech design — items for sale within the store include a Siamese Orchid by a designer who goes by the name “virtox,” a $39.00 MakerBot Mixtape, a $59.99 MakerBot watch, a replica of the Eiffel Tower and a Marsyas head from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just like a museum or art gallery exhibit, each item comes with a white card that explains the object’s provenance — in this case, the name of the designer and its Thingiverse ID. The store also has a brightly-colored gumball machine where, for $5, you can walk away with a 3-D printed souvenir, such as a plastic stick figure with fifteen different moving parts.
For now, the Replicator 2 is limited to printing items with a maximum size of 11 x 6 inches, meaning that we’re still a few years away from people routinely printing something like 3-D tires for their cars. So, the technology is still in its hobbyist stage — what many liken to the very beginning of the PC revolution and the Homebrew Computing Club. What’s needed are a few good examples of how everyday people are using these printers either to make money (by licensing their designs) or to save money, say, by printing out 3-D light bulbs or cheap toys for their kids instead of plunking down cash at the local Walmart or Costco. In other words, 3-D printing needs a “killer app.” Until then, the technology will continue to seem more like a very cool hobby than a revolution in manufacturing.
Just like any truly disruptive technology, it’s not entirely clear which industry 3-D printing is about to disrupt. For now, the biggest players within the 2-D printing industry, companies such as HP and Epson, seem to be paying little or no attention to the 3-D printing movement. And, as Chris Anderson notes in his cover story on MakerBot for WIRED magazine, even the big Silicon Valley venture capitalists aren’t paying a lot of attention to 3-D printing technology right now. And, yet, all one has to do is think of how Kodak ignored the warning signs of the digital photography revolution to understand just how big a disruption 3D printing might pose to the established tech players.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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