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Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 09/28/2012

3-D Printing: A technology on the make?


A photo taken inside the new MakerBot store. The colorful items in the background are the plastic "feedstock" used to create the 3D items. (Dominic Basulto)

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.


The MakerBot mixtape, on sale at the MakerBot store in New York City. (Dominic Baslto)

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.


This gumball machine at the MakerBot store in New York City doesn't offer candy. Instead, visitors can buy small, 3D-printed objects. (Dominic Basulto)
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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By  |  11:59 AM ET, 09/28/2012

Categories:  Dominic Basulto, Technology, The Arts

 
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