Is 3D Printing a Production Technology? Part 1: Making Consumer Products at Home

Some of my colleagues believe that additive manufacturing (of which 3D printing is one type) is only a prototyping technology now.  It’s an interesting debate that I’ve been looking into all summer.  I believe they’re wrong; that there is a significant set of products that are better produced using additive manufacturing techniques right now, both for consumer and industrial applications.  I’ll be continuing to research this over the Fall, but thought it was worth a post now.

A team of researchers at Michigan Tech did a nice article on whether it was worth buying a home 3D printer to make simple manufactured products.  They found 20 common household items ranging from a set of 12 shower curtain rings to custom shoe orthotics and computed how much it would cost to make each on a low-end open source 3D printer, the RepRap.  In every case, the part produced is more than strong enough for its application.  Here a summary of the numbers:

  • Cost of plastic to make the 20 products:  $17.80
  • Cost of energy to make the 20 products:  $0.31
  • Total time required to set up the 3D printer:  20-30 hours.
  • Total time to print the 20 products:  25 hours.
  • Cost of the RepRap 3D printer:  $575
  • Cost to buy the cheapest available version of the 20 products online (not including shipping costs):  $312.03
  • Cost to buy higher-end versions of the 20 products online (not including shipping):  $1943.83

These numbers ignore some important factors that anyone considering investing in the technology should consider:

  • There’s a setup and learning cost to printing parts at home.  It takes at least 20-30 hours to set up the printer and get it working, time to monitor the printing of parts, and time to maintain and calibrate the printers.
  • As the use of these printers increase, the payback numbers are likely to change dramatically – the cost of the printers and the supplies will drop and their reliability and capability will increase.
  • It’s not quite fair to amortize the cost of the printer over only 20 products.  The total printing time is only 25 hours.  What I’ve found is that you continually find opportunities to download and print items that you need.  And the printer can be used by more than one household, lowering the cost per house and increasing the return on investment significantly.
  • The numbers don’t count the ability to customize the products, which is essentially costless for 3D printed parts.  This increases what you might be willing to pay for the parts produced compared to their mass-produced counterparts.  For example, what if instead of napkin rings at a dinner party, you could produce napkin rings with each guest’s name?  What if your iPhone case had an etched picture of your significant other?  What if the wall hanger for your keys had the names for the keys embossed above each hook?  Comparing the cost of the 3D printed versions of the products to the price of the cheapest mass-produced version may not be the best way to evaluate whether the investment is worth it to you.
  • The range of open-source parts available to download and print is increasing exponentially.  There were only a few thousand designs available on at the beginning of 2011; the number of designs is more than 100,000 now. And similar sites are springing up everywhere (Sketchup 3D Warehouse, 3Dvia, 123D Content, Shapeways, GrabCAD, Github, Appropedia, and others).  If you can’t find the part you’re looking for, just wait a month or two.
  • The analysis only includes basic plastic items.  But there’s the potential to 3D print some very interesting and rare products.  The Smithsonian is scanning the 3D shape of every item in its inventory and making the scans available to my kids’ school this Fall.  Soon you’ll have the ability to download and print some literally priceless artwork and artifacts.

So, right now, if you like to fiddle around with technology, have some spare time in the evenings, and spend more than a few hundred dollars per year on everyday household items like iPhone docks, garlic presses, headphone cord winders, shower heads, and paper towel holders, then it’s worth it to buy a 3D printer for your home.  Even better would be to find a few friends in the neighborhood to share the cost, bringing the return on investment down to less than a year.

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  • Sage Lab

    I am a Design and Technology educator at a charter school in Boise, ID. Enthusiastic parents purchased for the school lab, two 3D printers. While I am completely appreciative of these printers, I have a real problem with students just going to a ‘parts warehouse’, downloading a piece they like and printing it. To me that is just button pushing. Therefore, I have limited my students to only print what they design through Sketchup or SolidWorks. I feel it is far more creative, educational, a better use of their time and cheaper for me because my printer is not grinding out insignificant bits of plastic whatever, just because it can.

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