Even though 3D printing seems like something out of a science fiction novel, the technology has been around for quite a few years now. Machines exist today which can take computer-generated models such as the mouse shown below (from Wikipedia), and turn them into real-life objects.
The quality of these printed objects is on par with most other manufacturing and prototyping processes and their ease of use is unparalleled. Companies like Dimension, Objet and Desktop Factory all make and sell plug and play 3D printers.
If this technology is so great and easy to use, why doesn't everyone have a 3D printer? The problem is cost. The cheapest printers made by Dimension and Desktop Factory cost around $5000! These companies are advertising these machines as breakthrough devices, and yet they cost 10% of the average US household income.
These companies need to take a step back if they want to put a 3D printer in every home in America. A (completely unscientific) survey I conducted recently on the Amazon Mechanical Turk suggested that people would jump at the opportunity to buy a desktop 3D printer in the price range of $200-$500, even if it meant lower print quality than the existing machines.
A device like this would be invaluable for home use. Coupled with an online object library such as Thingiverse and the rise of easy to use 3D CAD software like Google Sketchup, home repairs will be easier than ever. The low cost would make itself up in fewer trips to the hardware store in no time. Need a new kitchen utensil? Break the battery cover off of your TV remote? No problem. Click print and you're all set.
This is the exact goal of the RepRap project: to put an inexpensive 3D printer in every home. This group has made tremendous progress in designing and building self-reprodudicing 3D printers: printers that can print other printers. This idea is pretty alluring; imaging building a device that can build a copy of itself. The growth would be exponential.
The only problem is that the technology to print parts like electronics and motors simply doesn't exist yet. This means that at best, the RepRap can currently print around 60% of its own parts. Unfortunately, a 3D printer that can print 60% of its parts is just as useful as one that can print 0% of its parts. Until this technology arrives, I feel the RepRap will be stuck in engineering labs and hobbyists basements.
This is where a project I've been working on since last January comes in. Geoff Tsai and I have been working to design and build a low-cost printer ($200-$500), similar to the RepRap, that will be manufactured using traditional techniques rather than 3D printing. We built our first prototype in May and were successful in printing a few small test parts. I'm working on improving our software and improving the reliabilty of our machine.
I hope to have a second prototype completed by the end of the fall. More updates will be coming!