MakerBot says shoppers ready for 3D printers, some have doubts

BOSTON Fri Nov 22, 2013 6:29pm EST

1 of 5. Twelve-year-old Leon McCarthy rests his prosthetic hand on a MarkerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer at the new MakerBot store in Boston, Massachusetts November 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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BOSTON (Reuters) - MakerBot, a 3D printer maker which opened two new retail stores this week, is among the companies trying to bring the cutting-edge digital manufacturing technology to Main Street consumers, but skeptics say the rollout is premature.

MakerBot, a unit of Stratasys Ltd, opened retail stores this week in Boston and in Greenwich, Connecticut, both of which are twice the size of MakerBot's first store, 1,500 square feet in downtown Manhattan.

The company offers designs for more than 100,000 items through its "Thingiverse" online user community. The products range from knick-knacks like zombie sculptures to jewelry, sink drains and even medical devices. They are printed using its line of corn-based plastic fibers in more than a dozen colors.

"For most people 3D printing is futuristic science fiction. We're here to make it real," said CEO Bre Pettis, who cut the ribbon at the store on Boston's fashionable Newbury Street using scissors made on one of MakerBot's Replicator printers which start at $2,199.

Pettis, who has purchased splashy magazine ads to promote 3D printers as holiday gifts, believes there could soon be a 3D printer on every block in America.

Yet some technology experts say 3D printers may not be ready for prime time because they are still much less user friendly than most modern consumer electronics.

"There is so much hype," said Pete Basiliere, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner. "People are getting a little bit misled as to how easy it is," he said.

Some investors also are skeptical of 3D printing's readiness for the market. Short-seller Citron this week published an article questioning the earnings of Germany's voxeljet AG's, and shares in the sector fell, including those of MakerBot parent Stratasys and rivals 3D Systems Corp and ExOne Co.


Yet stock prices don't concern Leon McCarthy, a 12-year-old from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who was born without fingers and could only afford a prosthetic hand after his dad learned that they could be made using 3D printers.

His dad, Paul, helped arrange for him to get his first printed prosthesis nine months ago, a clunky device tied together with screws, bolts and cardboard dubbed "Frankenhand."

Three iterations later, the functionality is much better, though still limited compared to devices that cost thousands of dollars. But when he broke it playing football last week, he made a new one for less than $5 on a printer at school.

Since its inception, the concept of 3D printing has drawn strong opinions. Critics say the technology could be put to nefarious purposes, like building plastic guns and other weapons resistant to detection.

But in a major vote of confidence, President Barack Obama in February singled out the industry as having the potential to create jobs and "revolutionize" almost everything we make.

Gartner says the consumer market is growing briskly, yet the numbers are still tiny compared to traditional printers. It forecasts sales will climb to some 72,000 printers next year, up from about 42,000 in 2013 and about 28,000 in 2012.

Buyers need to know that there is a learning curve, according to experts: Users must use software for computer-aided design, or CAD, or at least learn to work with templates from websites such as Thingiverse and Defense Distributed, which published the first 3D-printable gun blueprint, the Liberator.

They must also calibrate temperatures for melting plastic used to build objects, said Joe Stewart, a security researcher with Dell SecureWorks who runs a hacking space in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that owns three 3D printers.

"They are very finicky. You have to do a lot of tweaking of hardware and software," he said. "I'm not sure the average consumer is ready for that."

MakerBot, founded in 2009 is one of the oldest makers of desktop 3D printers, but it has plenty of competition.

The 114-page Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing, published this month by MAKE Magazine, lists more than 20 3D printers ranging in price from $399 to more than $3,000.

MakerBot's Replicator was rated best option for so-called prosumers. The UP Plus 2 from Delta Micro Factory Corp, which cost $1,649, won the "Just Hit Print" category for ease of use. The Printrbot Simple, a $399 build-it-yourself kit from Lincoln, California-based Printrbot Inc got the award for "best value.

(The story has spelling correction of Stratasys at paragraphs 2, 8 & MakerBot in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio)

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Comments (3)
diluded0000 wrote:
I have a CNC milling machine, and I’m not ready for a 3D printer. If all you want to do is download objects and print them, that isn’t so hard. But the learning curve for creating 3D models from scratch is steep. Learning how to start/stop, reposition work, set feed rates, create models, export them to something the machine understands, simulate your model, etc, isn’t easy. I thought I could get a CNC mill, and be an instant machinist, but nothing could be further from reality. Even after nearly a decade of twiddling with CNC, I would realistically expect to spend 40 hours to get where I could reliably create and print objects. And as much as I want a white plastic zombie head, I just don’t have that much time to invest. I can see why a kid in an apartment would like one of these, but I have a well equipped shop and there are too many other fun projects I could do with the same time and money.

Nov 22, 2013 3:24pm EST  --  Report as abuse
As someone who taught professional-level 3D modeling for years at the college level, and the author of books on the subject, I cannot begin to understand this hype. The creation of 3D models is an artistic skill demanding talents and concentrated education that very few people can pretend to have. And creating digital models for actual physical construction is many times more difficult than producing them for mere imagery (as in video games or motion picture animation). All serious 3D modeling software appropriate for manufacturing design is awesome in its complexity, many degrees of magnitude higher than even the most outstanding 2D graphics software. And the skills required for real solid-object modelling are far greater than merely learning software. Just as knowing how to use Microsoft Word does make one a writer, functional command over 3D modelling software is very far from making a person a passable modeler. And even the most skilled modeling professional requires long hours for even simple projects. This is hard, hard work.

In short, I’m completely lost on why there would be retail demand for 3D “printers” (a misleading word) by the general public. On the other hand, 3D digital modeling and manufacture will certainly revolutionize real manufacturing in a true manufacturing environment, making it possible to general single or short-run items that are uneconomic to produce using conventional technologies.

Nov 22, 2013 5:45pm EST  --  Report as abuse
3dsavvy wrote:
High technical IQ needs for mass adoption of 3D Printing aside, the exponential group of the 3d technological revolution is just beginning. With key patents related to Metal 3D Printing expiring in Feb. 2014 making it possible for metal printing makerbots, sinterbots to be manufactured and sold will bring a whole new meaning to “Consumer 3D Printing.”

Metal 3d Printing using a desktop 3D Printer of the style of Makerbot will change the face of manufacturing by degrees of magnitude over the plastic prototyping 3D Printers of today.

Keep in mind, that we are at the stage of development of The 3D Printer where the first computers were in the 1980s. We are just beginning. Mass customization in metals and multi-material 3d printing technology will accelerate exponentially moving forward and the manufacturing landscape will resemble something quite different in 3 years, 5 years….

The skeptics or professed skeptics, naysayers, and doomdayers will in ten years, when 3d printed transplant organs are routinely grown from recipients own cells and microscopic nano disease fighting bioengineered cells are used in place of insanely destructive drug courses, the skeptics will be ever present.

I have follow the 3d printing advancements for 3 years now and have developed a portfolio of domain names related to 3D Printing and 3D Scanning, some of which I will sell.,,,,,,,,,,.etc.

Thank you

Robert McLean

Nov 24, 2013 8:38am EST  --  Report as abuse
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