New from CES: A 3D Printer for the Masses?
MakerBot unveiled its new 3D printer at CES: the $1,999 Replicator, which can manufacture items in two colors. (One color runs $1,799.) It's the company's first attempt at pitching 3D printers to consumers.
And it's yet another advance in one of the most fun technologies that have come along in years. Send a file from a CAD or 3D modeling application and the machine extrudes a plastic or resin to create a three-dimensional product. (Parts of the costume in the movie Iron Man 2 were created with 3D printers.)
What makes this new is not the mere existence of 3D printing, which has been around since at least the early 2000s, but the drop in price. Although still far from cheap, these devices have gone from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of thousands to figures approaching $1,000. As new designs and volume drives prices down even further, 3D printers will soon be within the reach of a growing number of consumers. Some entrepreneurs will find that by looking beyond the obvious, they'll turn consumer 3D printers into tremendous business opportunities. Seeing possibilities in new technology is a powerful skill to have.
Instead of viewing 3D printers as cool curiosities, think about what they represent. Such a device is a way to move transparently from a design to a product without creating tooling or hiring manufacturing personnel. It's as though someone had found a way to implement a Star Trek-like transporter. But instead of beaming objects from a ship in space to the surface of a planet, it sends products from digital files to tangible forms.
Up until recently, the devices were too expensive for regular people. Some companies did find ways to create items based on consumer designs, but the resulting products still had to physically ship.
Once people start having 3D printers in their homes, though, the Star Trek transportation idea gives a clue to how entrepreneurs could start to stretch their thinking. Instead of selling physical products that go through a physical distribution chain, someone could directly beam the design to the consumer and let the 3D printer actually do the replication.
A business owner could in theory provide designs for anything from jewelry and toys to replacement parts for the do-it-yourselfer trying to repair an espresso machine.
Make replacement parts designs available for download and printing and you have a business that could serve consumers and other businesses that needed something that the original manufacturer no longer carries. For those consumers who don't have 3D printers, one company could work with others—or maybe a chain like Kinko's—to let customers locally pick up what they need.
While the discussion is superficially about 3D printers, the point is bigger. When examining new technology, consider analogies, implications, and possibilities. Are there ways that you could extend how your company does business with its clients? Look beyond the obvious and see what doors could be opened with the key you've just found.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.