LAS VEGAS -- A 3-D printing trend playing out at the Consumer Electronics Show bodes a future in which shoes, eyeglass frames, toys and more are printed at home as easily as documents.
3-D printing has been around for about 25 years but has seen a surge in popularity as the technology improves and costs drop to a point accessible for hobbyists, artists and entrepreneurs.
Printers aimed at the home market typically use corn-based, biodegradable plastic layered and shaped using lasers and heated plates.
"Think of it as laying microscopic bricks; layers and layers of these bricks," said Roger Chang, chief executive of Singapore-based Pirate 3-D, which makes a Buccaneer home printer that sells for $497.
"Eventually, if you put enough bricks you get a building."
Brooklyn-based MakerBot was the only 3-D printer company at CES five years ago. Now, it is surrounded by rivals on a large section of show floor devoted to the trend.
"We feel like this is the year of 3-D printing," MakerBot spokeswoman Jenifer Howard said.
"Now, entrepreneurs without major financial backing can create prototypes themselves and even do small-scale manufacturing. It changes the whole picture."
Along with objects such as figurines, chess pieces and appliance handles, printers can pump out ball bearings, gears and components for creations with moving parts.
"3-D printing really is limitless," Howard said.
She noted that aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin used MakerBot printers to make a part for a telescope set to launch into space in about four years.
MakerBot printers have been used in Africa to make prosthetic hands at a fraction of what they might typically cost, according to Howard.
Digital plans for the "robo-hand" have been downloaded 55,000 times, according to MakerBot, which makes a vast library of digital blueprints available free at its website.
Fifth-generation Makerbot printers range from $1,375 to $6,500.
"Once you start 3-D printing, you actually look at the world differently," Howard said. "Instead of thinking of going to the store, you say you can make it yourself."
3-D printing has gone from languishing to being an attention-getting trend, but it will take "killer use cases" to get them into homes, according to NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker. "Most people aren't printing their own cellphone cases or backpacks," Baker said.
"You can make an argument that 3-D printing was languishing and now there is energy in a category that was pretty dull. We are probably a ways away from disrupting manufacturing."
3-D Pirate's Chang thinks independent toymakers will be among those leading to making 3-D printing mainstream.
"The same way iTunes allowed independent musicians to flourish by posting digital songs, indie toy designers can let their customers just print out the toys without worrying about economies of scale or distribution deals," Chang said.
Andrew Boggeri of Las Vegas-based Full Spectrum Laser cited a study indicating that the average U.S. home could save up to $2,000 annually by printing their own replacement for 27 commonly broken household items.
"The U.S. is a hotbed of 3-D printing right now," Boggeri said.
- Glenn Chapman, AFP
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014
Check out IndustryWeek's full CES coverage here: CES 2014