While I don’t have to remind you about the value of studies – many company-funded studies are best dropped directly in the trash after publication – this one about 3D printing does have some merit. Produced by the authors at Michigan Technological University, it posits that at a home 3D printer can provide a return on investment of 200 to 40 percent and can save the average home up to $2,000 in avoided purchase costs.
Here’s the money shot:
Now obviously this is at once conservative and a bit of wishful thinking. While I, personally, have built a few hundred dollars worth of parts for various customers using MakeXYZ, I’ve yet to print more than a few dozen dollars worth of hardware for around the home including a new knob for our drier (upward estimate of $20), some hose clamps ($5), and a chess set for my son ($5). I don’t believe my Makerbot has paid for itself – yet – but there’s still next year.
The real ramifications of 3D printing, however, have little to do with cost savings. The authors note in their conclusion:
Their assessment is that 3D printers like the RepRap and other cheap, open source devices will change the way we manufacture, allowing little guys like me to help others make cool stuff. For example, the drone in the picture above has legs that I printed for a MakeXYZ user named Anthony. These legs, if purchased at a hobby shop, would probably cost far more than the $40 or so I charged him simply because of their scarcity and demand. It is this exchange – my time and plastic for a few of his dollars – that is at the heart of this equation and the fact that he was able to design and print his own hardware on my machine is amazing to me.
We will soon have home 3D printers. It’s inevitable. How much they save us, however, is still in question. What isn’t in question is how much they’ll change our relationship to manufacturing in the long run. That is the truly exciting aspect of this study.