Solidoodle is a new effort from a former COO of MakerBot, Samuel Cervantes, aiming to bring the 3-D printer within reach of the average consumer with a price tag under $500. But it's not the only project in its class, and with at least a couple more systems on the way it's likely that 3-D printing will happen in your home sooner rather than later.
MakerBot itself is already famous for selling affordable 3-D printers that work with extruded plastic, and the firm's recent two-color extruder model is really pushing the boundaries of the tech. The thing is, the assembled MakerBots tend to be expensive, and though many a hobbyist may be tempted to purchase a home-assembly kit to save money (after all, that's how the iconic Apple I and ZX81 home computers were originally sold) the average consumer is almost never going to buy a semi-complete kit. Which is where Solidoodle comes in. Pre-assembled, all you need to make it work is your own computer, and it can manufacture objects that fit inside a 6-inch cube.
Best of all, Solidoodle actually looks like a finished consumer product, and has been engineered to be rugged. It's exactly the sort of tool that schools and universities would buy to fit into science, engineering, or even robotics or art classes--perfect for rapid-prototyping a student's ideas into a physical, grippable, talking-point object.
Meanwhile, back in December a Kickstarter project dubbed Printrbot succeeded in meeting its funding goal, and it's a very similar device. A little more home-brew style, the project was labeled as "finally a 3-D printer kit that anyone can build" because while it is based on the successful "RepRap" open-source 3-D printer design, it lacks much of the high build-complexity of its predecessor, and consists of a relatively small number of parts that are easily assembled.
The Printrbot was no record-smashing Pebble on Kickstarter, for sure, but it did succeed in surpassing its modest $25,000 goal by 3,323%, earning nearly 2,000 backers. That is proof positive there's a demand for these types of machine, even if in Printrbot's case they're a little more fiddly than Solidoodle because the $499 kit involves you putting it together.
Currently there's even another Kickstarter project underway, the 3-D Bukobot--a similar RepRap-derived open source machine, sold on its ease of assembly and its expandability (so while the main project can build smaller plastic shapes, it's easy to expand its size to produce much bigger pieces). A full Bukobot kit, at the entry-level, costs backers $750. The project is currently at 17% of its $42,000 goal and there's still nearly a full month to run before its funding window closes.
But Bukbot's spiel tells us why this phenomenon is going to take off: "From simple fixes around the house, like hooks for cookware or a replacement vacuum cleaner hose clamp, to custom toys and working engineering prototypes, a Bukobot is a Maker's dream come true...you can even print new parts for more Bukobots! If you are a designer, artist, engineer or a hobbyist, a Bukobot will open your imagination. A Bukobot is like your own little personal factory." It's precisely for all of these reasons that soon enough we'll all be tempted to buy a 3-D printer of our own.
And before you poo-poo the idea, arguing that even the ability to zap out on-demand toys for your kids isn't enough of a draw, Makerbot products cost toward $2,000 and yet there are already about 10,000 MakerBots in the world, according to Bre Pettis, the firm's CEO and cofounder. In a note to Fast Company, Pettis explained that his business is booming as "more and more people are getting excited about the empowerment that 3-D printing brings--from fashion and toy designers to engineers and architects." The lure of 3-D printing is even causing some firms to expand their thinking: Limor Schweitzer's U.K. company Robosavvy styles itself as "specializing in sales, distribution and support of Advanced Robotic products for the Hobby, Education and Research markets worldwide" and has been selling robots. But the firm recently expanded to selling MakerBots, and Schweitzer explained to Fast Company that "MakerBot sales are going very well. Presales for Replicator have far exceeded expectations."
Remember when laser printers were hulking machines that sat in the corner of the office, spewing odd smells, much noise and broke down regularly despite their multi-thousand dollar price tags? And now you can get a tiny, almost equally powerful one that sits on your desk for under $100? That's pretty much what's going to happen when 3-D printers get more productized, more reliable, and cheaper. Yes, $500 is a good start, as Solidoodle shows, but we guess even this price will edge downward soon enough.