Economic analysis shows 3-D printing is ready for showtime

Jul 29, 2013 by Marcia Goodrich
Pictured are some of the 20 things Joshua Pearce's group made for pennies on the dollar using 3-D printers. Credit: Justin Plichta/Michigan Technological University

It may seem like a stretch to envision a 3D printer in every home. However, a Michigan Technological University researcher is predicting that personal manufacturing, like personal computing before it, is about to enter the mainstream in a big way.

"For the average American consumer, 3D printing is ready for showtime," said Associate Professor Joshua Pearce.

3D printers deposit multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make almost anything, from toys to tools to kitchen gadgets. Free designs that direct the printers are available by the tens of thousands on websites like Thingiverse. Visitors can download designs to make their own products using open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, which you build yourself from printed parts, or those that come in a box ready to print, from companies like Type-A Machines.

3D printers have been the purview of a relative few aficionados, but that is changing fast, Pearce said. The reason is financial: the typical family can already save a great deal of money by making things with a 3D instead of buying them off the shelf.

Pearce drew that conclusion after conducting a lifecycle on 3D printing in an average American household.

In the study, Pearce and his team chose 20 common listed on Thingiverse. Then they used Google Shopping to determine the maximum and minimum cost of buying those 20 items online, shipping charges not included.

Three-dimensional printers deposit multiple thin layers of plastic and other materials to make a virtually infinite variety of designs, such as these parts for a 3-D printer. Credit: Justin Plichta/Michigan Technological University

Next, they calculated the cost of making them with 3D printers. The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 to buy those 20 things compared to $18 to make them in a weekend.

Open-source 3D printers for home use have ranging from about $350 to $2,000. Making the very conservative assumption a family would only make 20 items a year, Pearce's group calculated that the printers would pay for themselves quickly, in a few months to a few years.

The group chose relatively inexpensive items for their study: cellphone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, a spoon holder, and the like. 3D printers can save consumers even more money on high-end items like customized orthotics and photographic equipment.

3D printing isn't quite as simple as 2D printing a document from your home computer—yet. "But you don't need to be an engineer or a professional technician to set up a 3D printer," Pearce said. "Some can be set up in under half an hour, and even the RepRap can be built in a weekend by a reasonably handy do-it-yourselfer."

It's not just about the money. 3D printing may herald a new world that offers consumers many more choices as everything can be customized. "With the exponential growth of free designs and expansion of 3D printing, we are creating enormous potential wealth for everyone." explains Pearce.

Before 3D printers become as ubiquitous as cellphones, they could form the basis of small-scale manufacturing concerns and have huge potential both here and for developing countries, where access to many products is limited.

"Say you are in the camping supply business and you don't want to keep glow-in-the-dark tent stakes in stock," Pearce said. "Just keep glow-in-the-dark plastic on hand, and if somebody needs those tent stakes, you can print them."

"It would be a different kind of capitalism, where you don't need a lot of money to create wealth for yourself or even start a business," Pearce said.

The study is described in the article "Life-Cycle Economic Analysis of Distributed Manufacturing with Open-Source 3D Printers," to be published in the journal Mechatronics and coauthored by Pearce; students Ben Wittbrodt, Alexandra Glover and John Loreto and lab supervisor Gerald Anzalone of Michigan Tech's Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Douglas Oppliger, Engineering Fundamentals lecturer; and John Irwin, an associate professor in the School of Technology and program chair of mechanical engineering technology.

Explore further: Student designs and develops revolutionary new hand-held laminating tool

More information: www.academia.edu/4067796/Life-… -Source_3-D_Printers

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PeterParker
1 / 5 (6) Jul 29, 2013
Wow, you can print glow in the dark tent pegs. It will only take 2 hours per peg.

Sorry. But as much as 3d printing interests me, I can't think of a single thing that I "need" to print, or that would be more convenient to print rather than purchase.

djr
1 / 5 (2) Jul 29, 2013
I am confused about the numbers. I use quite a lot of plant pots, and seed trays. Recently I weighed some of the pots - and then looked at the price of rolls of plastic on Amazon. It would have cost me a lot more money to print the pots and the trays myself. Wonder if there is some cheaper sources of the plastic rolls?
NikFromNYC
1.6 / 5 (13) Jul 29, 2013
Soft Marxist BS as investors pump before they dump.
packrat
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 29, 2013
Wow, you can print glow in the dark tent pegs. It will only take 2 hours per peg.

Sorry. But as much as 3d printing interests me, I can't think of a single thing that I "need" to print, or that would be more convenient to print rather than purchase.



Most people would look at it the same way but I would find it very handy as I'm always building things and prototyping small stuff which can be very time costly in labor. Being able to have some of it printed would make many of my projects go much faster. The only reason I haven't bought or built one yet is the type of plastics they use in the small machines isn't strong enough for the uses I would need the parts for. I can't afford one of the big commercial versions that can do metal sintering.
TomL
5 / 5 (3) Jul 29, 2013
..before 3D printers become as ubiquitous as cellphones...
Wait, wait... The contemporary 3D printers are good for cheap artifacts and children toys, nothing more. Everyone know, what the smartphone could be good for, but who actually needs the tiny things made of single piece of soft plastics?


The 3d printers they are talking about print in ABS (lego blocks), which is pretty hard...and if you look around most everything is made from plastic now.
TomL
5 / 5 (3) Jul 29, 2013
I am confused about the numbers. I use quite a lot of plant pots, and seed trays. Recently I weighed some of the pots - and then looked at the price of rolls of plastic on Amazon. It would have cost me a lot more money to print the pots and the trays myself. Wonder if there is some cheaper sources of the plastic rolls?

I don't think it works for really cheap stuff - but you have to remember 3D printers can print hollow or partially filled objects so you only need to use as much material as you need for a specific product. I don't know about seed trays -- I think they are pretty cheap - but Phys.org mentioned orthotics and I know mine cost $400 a pair.
djr
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 29, 2013
"Phys.org mentioned orthotics and I know mine cost $400 a pair."

I think you are right - for cheap stuff like seed trays ($3 a piece) it would be too expensive to try printing them - but more custom stuff like orthotics - it would make sense.
meBigGuy
3 / 5 (4) Jul 30, 2013
the article is ridiculous, expecially the glow in the dark tent stakes. Show me the "20 household items" that add up to " $312 to $1,944 " What a joke. Mark it with a 1.

antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (4) Jul 30, 2013
The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 to buy those 20 things compared to $18 to make them in a weekend.

Retailers (and middle-men in general) are not gonna like this. Unless they switch to the type of shop that stocks 'specialty materials' (like the glow-in-the-dark tent peg material) and prints out products on demand.

Recently I weighed some of the pots

Using a 3D printer you can easily go for a design that uses less material (no reason why the pots need to be solid - is there?)

Soft Marxist BS as investors pump before they dump.

I think you're confusing something here. 'Pump and dump' is a wholly capitalist thing.
ThomasQuinn
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 30, 2013
Soft Marxist BS as investors pump before they dump.


A true reactionary: every innovation is a communist plot, we should never have started walking on two legs. The really hilarious part is that you clearly don't have a firm grasp of the differences between capitalism and communism, which means your reply is at least good for a laugh.
Tennesse
1 / 5 (1) Jul 30, 2013
It's true the capitalism brought much progress, but it brought many inventions too, which advanced their time and/or which were proven economically unfeasible. For example, nobody maintains a Xerox copier at home, despite it could certainly find some applications for it. IMO the 3D printers will follow the similar market model in various payed services.
djr
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2013
"For example, nobody maintains a Xerox copier at home,"

I have a multi purpose printer - that is essentially a xerox copier that will also print, scan, and fax. Most people I know have a similar piece of equipment. Is that what you are referring to?
VendicarE
1 / 5 (3) Jul 30, 2013
" but Phys.org mentioned orthotics and I know mine cost $400 a pair." - TomL

Yes. It should revolutionize the prodution of orthotics, and a host of other things as well.

For some forms of prototyping.. Wow... Perfect.

But people aren't going to be printing dinner plats or tent pegs, or pencils.

Sorry. but that is just pie in the sky nonsense.

VendicarE
2 / 5 (4) Jul 30, 2013
"Soft Marxist BS" - NikkieTard

More Conservative brain death from the 5th prince to the throne of Conservative brain death.
djr
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2013
"But people aren't going to be printing dinner plats or tent pegs, or pencils."

It could make good conversation pieces for parties -" that plastic fork you are eating with only cost $35 - I made it myself."
VendicarE
2 / 5 (4) Jul 30, 2013
Children could make their own working lego blocks, and Amputees could print themselves new legs.

"My wife printed her own IUD" - Klovis Klinker.
winthrom
5 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2013
My air plane has two old radios: each has plastic parts inside that are attached to the frequency selection knob. The part has a detente for each frequency range. Another plastic part selects sub-frequencies. These parts wears out and and I need a new radio. Cost about $600 - $!000 each. I scan the old parts, and correct for wear. Next I print them. Pretty big payday for me. This is a good idea.

BTW, how many times has a cheap plastic part broken and no glue known to man can fix the part. Print it!

PS. My certified aircraft mechanic has half a dozen radios inoperable like this.
DistortedSignature
5 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2013
I'm sure when computers took up buildings, no one thought that people would want a faster, smaller, cheaper version in their own homes...

I like the comparison of personal computing to personal manufacturing in that sense.

I have no idea when it will become as commonplace as a PC, but it sounds like something that will inevitably happen. Flatout saying it won't be feasible in this century (or at all) is shortsighted in my opinion.
djr
3 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2013
"Flatout saying it won't be feasible in this century (or at all) is shortsighted in my opinion."

Totally agree Distorted - this is a fantastic technology - I was just kidding around a bit. wintrom's radio parts was a great example of how it will make a LOT of economic sense in some situations - and then spread out from there. It is like the solar panel situation - it may not make sense for everyone initially, but over time the systems will get cheaper - and sooner or later we all have one in our homes. Some are predicting local plants where you will one day go and get your car printed to order. Maybe not this year - but it will come.
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2013
Totally agree Distorted - this is a fantastic technology

And to think what this technology can already do - and it's what? 25 years old (which is next to nothing if one looks at the beginnings) .

There's so much this cxan potentially do.

- Print organic substances (NASA is already looking into printing pizza for Mars missions)
- Printing pharmaceuticals
- Printing fully integrated tech-items in one go. Think about that for a second: No more distinction between casings and functional parts (cars with integrated batteries in the bodywork, functional clothing, ... )
- And when we think about mid to far future applications: When (not if) we can print on atomic scales in adequate speeds then things get to be really exciting. Because then there is nothing that you can do with metalworks/machining/farming/whatever that you cannot replicate with a printer. it'd be the end-all of supplying your needs.
Neinsense99
2 / 5 (8) Aug 04, 2013
the article is ridiculous, expecially the glow in the dark tent stakes. Show me the "20 household items" that add up to " $312 to $1,944 " What a joke. Mark it with a 1.


Don't forget the little parts for things that are out of production or otherwise unavailable but essential to keep something operating or repair a collector's item.
Gmr
2 / 5 (4) Aug 04, 2013
Making something locally just changes the manufacturing model. People will come up with different printer designs for cheap versus fast versus durable production - and people will sell designs instead of products. It's not Marxist to want to move something from a niche industry to closer to home - it just changes the economic landscape, and old companies have to change or die. Before it was the wheelwrights who had heart palpitations - now it's big manufacturing that might have to change or die.

I do not mourn the loss of old behemoths of ancient technologies; because new, innovative folks will take their place. That's oddly enough a capitalist model. It's anti-capitalist to allow hoary old industries to try and stifle change with lobbying. That's why we don't like monopolies in the United States.
VendicarE
1 / 5 (4) Aug 04, 2013
The reality is that most Americans didn't know how to set the time on their VCR's and now they are expected to pick up a 3d Cad system, design a part for that VCR print it, and replace it.

Sorry. Ain't gonna happen. Never.

This isn't to say that 3d printers aren't useful in some professional contexts.

I met a guy the other day who was told that it would cost over $2,000 to replace the lens cover over his back tail light.

This would be a perfect job for a 3d printer if they could print such a thing.

They can't print transparent plastics of course.

Still, it would be nice to put the automotive industry out of business.
bobalony
5 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2013
They can't print transparent plastics of course.

Google "clear abs", first hit is amazon which has it in stock ready to ship 1kg of 1.75mm for $33.

I have a 3d printer. its not perfect, it cant do everything, its not ready to change the world. but it is great for prototyping/small things. a few examples of small around the house things I've made were, a plastic safety lock pin for my paper shredder. now i can set it on top of the giant trash cans and shred all day long. no more 1 gallon baby bucket. on my watch the retaining clip to hold the band flush broke, so i just printed a new one. I made a solid base for an arduino so i don't have to worry about it shorting on anything on my bench. Ive made pro mini holders with mounting holes so i can attach them permanently for projects. i made a drip catch for a spot that was leaking water onto the computer in my car and shorting it out.

3d printers fill the need for one off's. thats their advantage. not replacing mass production
Eikka
not rated yet Aug 04, 2013
Google "clear abs", first hit is amazon which has it in stock ready to ship 1kg of 1.75mm for $33.


It doesn't come out as transparent - the result will be translucent milky white, and even if you sand and polish the surface, the print is so full of little voids and bubbles that it's useless for optics.

VendicarE
1 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2013
"Google "clear abs", first hit is amazon which has it in stock ready to ship 1kg of 1.75mm for $33." - BobBalony

It is translucent, not transparent and the printers can't lay down a uniform enough surface to produce a lens or a clear sheet that doesn't dramatically distort the passage of light.

Materials such as polycarbonate might be used to produce a truly clear layer of extruded material, but unless you get down to printing at the wavelength of light, you will never be able to print a distortion free lens or optically transparent, non-distorting layer, like a lens cover.

Gmr
1 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2013
"Google "clear abs", first hit is amazon which has it in stock ready to ship 1kg of 1.75mm for $33." - BobBalony

It is translucent, not transparent and the printers can't lay down a uniform enough surface to produce a lens or a clear sheet that doesn't dramatically distort the passage of light.

Materials such as polycarbonate might be used to produce a truly clear layer of extruded material, but unless you get down to printing at the wavelength of light, you will never be able to print a distortion free lens or optically transparent, non-distorting layer, like a lens cover.


I could see doing it with matrix material and pressured or laser sintering. Some melt to fill in voids might allow you to actually have your cake and eat it too, as it were.

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