The crush on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was so great two people fell over behind me. I lurched forward with the crowd, memories of the Big Day Out mosh pit rushing back to me. What was all the fuss about? The unveiling of the iPhone 6? Was Mark Zuckerberg in the house? No.
A 3D printer, the shape and size of a microwave, was sculpting something in front of us, tiny nozzles layering molten plastic resin that eventually took the shape of a black and red flower.
This was the Replicator 2X, the newest 3D printer from US company MakerBot. It is designed for home enthusiasts and will sell for about $3300 – the same price as a high-end colour laser printer that prints nothing but plain old ink onto plain old paper.
The MakerBot printer and its 3D ilk represent the next big thing in technology. Or so we have been endlessly promised. “We are out to build the next industrial revolution,” MakerBot chief executive Bre Pettis told the world’s media at CES, “by putting the power to manufacture things in your hands.”
The concept behind cheap 3D printers is indeed enticing. Imagine being able to knock up a digital design for a table lamp on your iPad, then hit print and have the lamp’s components assembled in front of your eyes. It has the potential to be a virtual Ikea factory in your own home.
But things aren’t quite that simple. Mastering the software that allows you to create your own 3D designs is still a tricky process. The newest batch of 3D printers only prints plastic polymers. Metals, ceramic, silicon and electronic circuits are beyond them. Unfortunately, those materials are also essential to building anything half useful.
But in the world of industrial design, 3D printing is already proving its worth. It is used for “prototyping” everything from Formula 1 racing cars to mobile phones. Sir Peter Jackson uses 3D printers to create props for his movies.
Perhaps most exciting is its potential for human health. Belgian company LayerWise used a type of 3D printer to create a titanium lower jaw, which was successfully transplanted into a woman last year. And a North Carolina-based surgeon, Professor Anthony Atala, is experimenting with 3D printing to develop tissues and whole organs using living cells as his building blocks. He believes it could one day supplement organ donations.
But back to the home and the desktop 3D printer. MakerBot’s Pettis, Replicators whirring away behind him, had one shot at CES to inspire us all with an example of what his machine could produce.
He chose to tell us the story of a Replicator owner who wanted to take his daughter to an amusement park. Unfortunately, US regulations stipulate you have to be at least 42 inches tall to be allowed to ride the roller coaster and the bumper cars.
The girl was 41-and-a-half inches tall. Dad put his Replicator to work, printing half-inch plastic inserts for his girl’s shoes so she would meet the minimum height for the rides.
“This is what MakerBot operators live for,” beamed Pettis. “We see ordinary people who like to make things use MakerBot to solve everyday problems.”
The plastic shoe inserts pretty much sum up where we have got to with consumer-level 3D printers. The technology is cool and quirky, but still the domain of craft enthusiasts, designers and artists who don’t mind their unique designs coming in several flavours of plastic.
You could say we are in the “trough of disillusionment” with 3D printers – that spot on the hype cycle where the reality delivered by new technology seems a world away from the over-inflated promise.
3D printing may indeed power a design revolution that could eventually see our own cells moulded into flesh, organs and even bone. But what about that table lamp? For now, a trip to Briscoes seems like much less hassle.