When it comes to 3-D printing, there’s a seemingly bottomless well of promise for the future: new organs, recycled, 3-D printed plastic homes—even shoes can be designed and mini-manufactured at home. (At Co.Design, we’ve closely considered the impracticality of the 3-D printing craze, and taken a survey of how the technology could deliver some good into world.)
The latest word comes from a study by Michigan Technological University, which purports that buying and using a desktop 3-D printer is an economically savvy move, just like saving coupons or carpooling. The researchers selected 20 objects that a typical household would buy and replace throughout a year—like spoon rests, shower heads, cellphone cases—and compared that cost with the expense of printing them from open-source designs. The printer was a RepRap model—one of the cheapest options on the market—and the designs were sourced from MakerBot’s Thingiverse.
From the study’s abstract:
The results show that even making the extremely conservative assumption that the household would only use the printer to make the selected 20 products a year the avoided purchase cost savings would range from about $300 to $2000/year….the unavoidable conclusion from this study is that the RepRap is an economically attractive investment for the average US household already. It appears clear that as RepRaps improve in reliability, continue to decline in cost and both the number and assumed utility of open-source designs continues growing exponentially, open-source 3-D printers will become a mass-market mechatronic device.
The study accounts for time spent and cost of materials, but it’s flawed in its ignorance toward the user experience. The advantages of whipping up a tape dispenser at home is countered by the fact that you may still need to swing by Staples for new pens or paper. And perhaps a 4-year-old won’t notice the roughly hewn edges of her new dollhouse, but a woman attending a social function likely knows better than to wear 3-D printed earrings. Or there’s simply the the unbeatable convenience of Amazon. Only one conclusion is for sure: Don’t get rid of your Costco membership just yet.