“Can it make that leap to getting in every house? PCs did that ... and the software to match,” Harris said. “What’s far more likely is every FedEx office will have a row of 3-D printers.”
3D Systems would disagree. The Rock Hill, S.C.-based company is one of the largest 3-D printer manufacturers and launched a consumer line through its Herndon-based Cubify operation in January 2012.
The Cube sells for $1,299 and comes in silver, lime green, hot pink, blue and white. Images on the firm’s Web site showcase such final products as customized plastic sunglasses, a small vase and children’s beach toys. CubeX, a $2,499 model, can print items as large as a basketball, in multiple colors with multiple materials.
“We originally launched it for kids from 8 to 80,” spokeswoman Alyssa Reichental said. “What we mean by that is there’s something for everyone, whether you’re an artist or designer, and this becomes a business platform for you, or you’re an adult who is trying to unleash some creativity.”
Still, some of the biggest promises of 3-D printing — that it can change the way consumers buy products and disrupt entire industries — isn’t likely to come to pass with existing at-home models, said Machado, the IDC analyst.
“Maybe [in] the next five years you could see it as a creative outlet, but not necessarily a functional outlet,” she said. “I’m probably still going to go to the AutoZone to get the parts I need [for my car], I’m not going to print those at home.”
For the office
The business applications for 3-D printing are much more established, though they’ve traditionally been limited to certain industries. Companies such as PPI in Ashburn, for example, have used the machines to create prototypes of products.
But as printers have become more sophisticated and the objects they generate more professional, the devices can be used to create final products or components of final products. The machines with those capabilities come at a cost — and a steep one at that.
“In the past five years, you’ve seen more end products, especially on the medical side,” Machado said. “We’re talking about machines that cost half a million dollars or a million dollars, that’s a huge acquisition cost.”
The machines used by a firm like PPI may come with such a hefty price tag, but some professional-caliber machines can now be bought for a few thousand dollars. That’s made them available to small businesses, including some here in Washington.
District-based Design Operative acquired a printer in May and used it for the interior design at Teddy & the Bully Bar, a Theodore Roosevelt-inspired restaurant on 19th Street NW. Warren Weixler, the owner and creative director, used the machine to print miniature versions of Mount Rushmore that cover an entire wall like tile, among other projects.
“Before we would search the Internet long and hard to find something that was ‘almost’ what we needed,” Weixler said via e-mail. “Now we design and print ‘exactly’ what we need.”
“This breaks down the barrier between what we can and cannot do for a client. We can now offer more and as we expand our knowledge of the machine and its capabilities, I’m sure we will be able to expand the offerings again and again,” he added.
The Smithsonian Institution created a 3-D Lab as part of the Digitization Program Office, which has been charged with creating 3-D scans of some of the institution’s many artifacts.
Once scanned, replicas can be printed for use by other organizations, as part of hands-on exhibits or in classrooms. The Smithsonian has printed replicas of President Abraham Lincoln’s life mask for the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of America History, for example.
“Three-D scanning and printing is just beginning to revolutionize how museums support conservation, public access and research ... currently we are only scratching the surface of possibilities,” 3-D Digitization Coordinator Vincent Rossi said via e-mail.
Global architecture and design firm Gensler has long created three-dimensional models of its redevelopment projects. That process typically involved a highly skilled model builder, either in-house or outsourced, which was time-consuming and expensive.
The firm has now shifted some of that work to 3-D printers. As a result, the time between concept and model is shorter, and changes to design plans can be made more easily.
“We benefit greatly from being able to rapidly build components and work with them soon after the first sketch,” Jordan Goldstein, co-managing director of the Washington office, said via e-mail. “We can work on a design during the day, and send the file to the printer to work overnight. In the morning, our design is waiting for us.”