What’s a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic good for?

I’m not holding my breath for a 3D printer in every home


MakerBot Industries

Correction:  the 3D printer described below (Makerbot’s newest model, unveiled at CES) is the Replicator, not the Thing-O-Matic (pictured above), as I goofed up and identify it as in this post. The Replicator costs $1749, not $1099. Here’s a link, and sorry about that.

Earlier this week I called this $100 OLPC tablet the most exciting gadget at the CES show in Vegas (which I am experiencing virtually). Some disagree, and suggest that I should have singled out this MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, an affordable 3D printer ($1099) that spits out bigger objects than the last 3D printer you all bought (right?)–and in two colors to boot.

I’m unconvinced. 3D printing makes certain geeks quiver with glee, but so far it’s left me kind of cold. The cheap little plastic choking hazards that result from the process look like they come from CrackerJack boxes, and rarely seem worth the time it takes to print them or the money that goes into the building plastic. Math-fractal jewellery made from 3D printed molds looks god-awful ugly to me, and the trippy dream of printing a 3D printer WITH A 3D PRINTER always struck me as the combined mental wankery of stoners + nerds.

But of course, I’m missing the point. 3D printing is still in its infancy. The hobbyists who are pushing it forward, and pushing the price of 3D printers down, dream of a not-too-distant future in which the digital revolution bursts forth from the world of bits and conquers the pesky and inefficient world of atoms. Stuff itself will never be the same. Manufacturing and shipping could become largely unnecessary. It would be almost like those replicators on Star Trek (or so I’m told). Put an object in a box in Toronto, and it will be scanned and printed out in Australia, as many times as you need, in whatever color, at whatever size, with whatever changes you require. We will be liberated from the cookie-cutter sameness of mass-production. Consumer goods will be downloaded and printed, not bought at the mall, and each individual will shape the stuff they want to their own needs.

Sounds awesome, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Yes, the price of home 3D printers will continue to drop as their speed and scale increase. But even a cheap, big, and fast 3D printer is only capable of spitting out plastic stuff, one part at a time. Assembly will be required, unless we also somehow have cheap and versatile home robotics in this bold 3D future. I can see the benefit for printing simple tools, machine parts and minimalist hipster toys. But most of the stuff we buy is made from multiple materials and many parts, and lots of it includes electronics. Even if it’s possible to design, say, the chassis for a tablet computer to your own personal specs, you’ll still have to pick up metal and glass parts and a motherboard, and then meticulously assemble the whole thing in your living room. Will something like that ever go mainstream?

I’m not holding my breath for a 3D printer in every home. To assume that these machines will do to manufacturing what 2D printers did to publishing is to make the same mistake we always make about technology, insisting that the future will be like the present, only more so. As with most technology, 3D printers will completely fail to do what we expect them to do, and will instead change the world in ways that no one is anticipating.

Sorry I can’t be more specific.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


What’s a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic good for?

  1. Earl Grey….hot.

  2. Two words: Personalised cyberdildos.

  3. I do work for MakerBot so I’m a bit biased, but I’d just like to point out that the Thing-O-Matic was our last product, introduced in late 2010.  It’s the Replicator that we’ve just announced at CES: http://www.makerbot.com/blog/2012/01/09/introducing-the-makerbot-replicator/

    Have a look for the most up-to-date specs.  The two biggest ones are the size of the build area and that the new machine is sold assembled.

  4.  “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977.

  5. I don’t see the need for you to crinkle your nose at this device or the enthusiast sub-culture that spawned it.  Most people are completely unaware that this sort of thing is even being attempted. Couldn’t you have used your platform to introduce it to a wider audience (edit) without being so judgmental? So what if it isn’t ready for prime time?  It is getting pretty darn close.  3D printer technology has been used in industrial prototyping for some time now, and is very advanced.  You can get CNC controlled mini-milling machines and lathes, a much older technology, from Sherline.  Some of the products by enthusiast using this method are very clever and even beautiful.  There isn’t any reason not to expect dramatic improvements in hobbyist 3D printing in the very near term.  

    If you were a food writer, you’d be dissing the people that can their own spaghetti sauce instead of the name-brand ones in the supermarket.

  6. Great for prototyping, but I agree. One for every home? I hope not. Not everyone will recycle the plastic waste this would produce and it will all end up in the garbage.

  7. You don’t exactly have an inkjet/laser printer in every home either, yet you don’t have people claiming that they are a passing fad or will only ever appeal to a small group of people.  I think that you’ll find the same thing for these consumer oriented 3-D printers: they will be adopted by a fairly broad range of society, from artists to engineers, so they will stick around.  But everyone’s home?  Nah.  I’ve run across people who can’t even make a hamburger, never mind anything more abstract.

  8. I agree with @f3e232ee129f31366b9e744d1e7ca942:disqus . You won’t see 3D printers in every home, but they will become an appliance you can pick up at Walmart similar to a 2D printer. Here is why:

    It is immensely useful for inventors because the price of electronics and software development is low enough that any hobbyist can afford. Same goes for CNC machines and laser cutters. The only piece missing was affordable 3D printing to make complex parts and enclosures. This plus the fast turnaround time make 3D printers useful to engineers, architects, designers, machinist, chefs (printable food), … basically anyone who creates things. 

    Even the non technical person can download or buy 3D designs and print them at home to make a new case for your iPhone or to fix that broken appliance. The money savings alone might be worth it.

    Education is another place where I think these devices will shine. It can be difficult to get kids interested in anything once they hit middle school. By time they learn enough about programming or electronics to feel the joy of creating something they get bored and start killing people in Modern Warfare. The near instant gratification of making something you care about could be very attractive to kids. 

    You sort of addressed this in your correction, but the new Makerbot can print using multiple materials and some 3D printers can print using metal already.

    To address @5e39e2e77c53ef18e9659ab3e3013794:disqus ‘s commet about waste the Makerbot can already print using biodegradable plastic called PLA.

    Sure, there will be applications of 3D printing technology that will surprise us, but I do see a mass market for 3D printers.

  9. If you’re wondering whether 3D printers will be in demand, walk to your local big grocery store, and check out the coin-operated toy dispensers.  Then step over to The Source (or whatever Radio Shack is calling itself these days) and count how many hand-held items they have that are made almost entirely of plastic.

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