8 Reasons Why You Should Get a 3D Printer

by Carrie Kirby on 26 September 2013 1 comment

3D printers — machines that use an additive manufacturing process to create objects using 3D designs — have been seeping out of the "maker" niche into the mainstream consciousness this year. They are becoming more affordable and easier to use. You can now buy a MakerBot model for under $3,000 or a DIY RepRap kit for under $1,000. Yet, home 3D printers are still mainly seen as toys for geeks young and old. (See also: 10 Frugal, Romantic Gifts for Geeks)

This is a mistake. A 3D printer can be fun, yes. But it can also save you money or help you launch a home-based business. Here are eight ways a 3D printer could pay for itself, save or make you money, and help you acquire things you might not otherwise have.

1. Make Instead of Buy

A recent study estimated that the average household could save $300 to $2,000 every year using an inexpensive 3D printer such as a RepRap to make 20 common products instead of buying them. The products listed in the study, all available as open source designs that people have created and shared with the 3D printing community, include a paper towel holder, a garlic press, a shower head, and an iPhone case.

"The results show that the RepRap is already an economically attractive investment for the average U.S. household," the Michigan Technological University study concluded.

Even in cases where making something on your printer costs as much as buying it, how much more convenient is it — and cooler — to get the thing without leaving the house or waiting for an online delivery?

2. Replace Broken Parts

Replacement parts can be so difficult or expensive to obtain that many only slightly-broken appliances and other items get trashed instead of fixed. Not only do companies often charge a lot to send you a replacement part, sometimes the part you need is no longer available.

Enter Thingiverse, a 3D printing site where users have shared nearly 3,000 plans for replacement parts for everything from blenders to bike fenders to, of course, 3D printers.

People who know how to do a little 3D modeling even create their own designs for replacement parts, or use a 3D scanner to bring the "Star Trek" concept of "replicating" to life.

Jay Leno even uses a 3D scanner and printer to replicate parts for his classic cars. Of course, Jay Leno is super rich, and he uses a $3,000 scanner and a $15,000 printer to do this. Still, it's a lot cheaper and better for him to do it this way than to hire a machinist to recreate a vintage part.

3. Make Adaptors

According to the New York Times, there are plenty of plans to help you adapt Legos to other brands of blocks and even to attach one brand of lens to a different camera.

4. Personalize

How about an iPhone case with a visualization of your favorite sound on it? A pair of shoes made for your feet only? A prosthetic limb that fits you perfectly? These things are all available from commercial applications of 3D printing. You could order or commission these things now — or you could buy a 3D printer and start fooling around with personalizing stuff at home.

"Put yourself or your grandchild onto a Barbie doll.... You can buy a Barbie doll, pop the head off, and pop on a new one," said Terry Wohlers, an industry analyst. (See also: 25 Frugal, Personalized Gift Ideas)

5. Design Things to Sell

Do you have a lot of ideas but not so much craftsmanship skill? 3D printing could be your doorway to a new business. For this San Francisco Chronicle article, I interviewed a woman who designed and sold custom 3D printed jewelry, and a man who created impossibly difficult twisty puzzles and sold them. (See also: 10 Money-Making Hobbies)

Actually, you don't even have to buy a 3D printer to do this — both these entrepreneurs sold their creations through Shapeways, an online combination of the Etsy and CafePress concepts. Shapeways will both print your designs and help you sell them.

6. Invent Something

3D printing has also been a boon to investors. If you have ever tried to submit an idea to manufacturers or bring it to market yourself, you know that getting a prototype made using traditional techniques can cost thousands of dollars.

"A good portion of our clients are industrial designers or product design companies," said John Vegher, founder of Moddler, 3D printing service in San Francisco. Moddler uses a $200,000 printer to make these prototypes, but a home printer could create a good enough model to showcase many ideas or to help inventors improve their concepts before making a more expensive prototype.

7. Educate the Kids

Whether you're a teacher, a homeschooling parent or just someone with science-curious kids, a 3D printer can be a great tool for learning and exploration. A teacher in New Jersey used a 3D printer to help kids as young as 11 design and create their own robots. Lots of parents have delighted their kids by turning their artwork into toys. Sadly, though, this Play-Doh 3D printer is just an April Fool's joke. (See also: Frugal Ways to Educate Your Kids)

8. Get Exactly What You Want

Perhaps the most exciting thing about 3D printing is that it can free you from the limitations of what has already been manufactured. With a 3D printer, you can create anything you want, within the capabilities of your printer model or the service you're using. Want to dress up as your boss for Halloween? You can print a mask of her face. Wish that your favorite product was just a little different? Change it.

Caveats

I know, I know. 3D printing is new. Lower-cost 3D printers have their limits. Using them requires some expertise. You're not going to reproduce your Bluetooth headset at home just yet. But when you start browsing online and see the objects people have created at home with low-end printers, and the even-more-amazing stuff people have commissioned from online services, you, too, will get excited about 3D printing.

Are you ready to make the jump into 3D makerspace? What's holding you back?

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Reading this is like hearing about the "internet superhighway" for the first time in the early 90s. I was like, "How are we supposed to drive on this so-called highway?" I just didn't get it then and I don't get this now. I just can't wrap my head around 3-D printing just yet. :)