I am a 3D printing enthusiast, but I admit that a family only needs so many small plastic Yoda heads. The idea that everybody will own a 3D printer and use it to make useful stuff for their house seems pretty silly when you see what people are making with their low-end devices. I can’t think of the last time I had an urgent need for a plastic shower curtain ring or any other similarly small plasticky household thingy. But I have started using Shapeways as a service both to buy other people’s designs (check out this origami crane skeleton) and to print stuff of my own, like this metal shape.
By reading the Shapeways blog, I’ve started to understand how 3D printers can be genuinely useful for normal people. They claim that some of the best selling pieces on their site are for robot quadcopters. Hobbyists are buying these helicopters and then tricking them out with highly customized parts.
So this is the scenario that makes sense to me: if a product is designed with 3D printing in mind, then it is, by definition, ready to be fixed and improved by 3D printing. All the parts can be made available on the web as 3D plans ready to print. When needed, they would be ordered from a shop like Shapeways. The turnaround time of 1 to 2 weeks isn’t fast, but it is vastly cheaper than buying your own machine. What’s true for hobbyist toys now will be true for many things in the future. I can see a selling point for a product being that you have access to 3D plans for all parts.
And look at this video of the Shapeways operation. It’s amazing how tightly they pack the print volumes with lots and lots of pieces. These machines are cumbersome and slow; it’s the only way to get low prices and fast turnaround.