3-D Printing Is Going Mainstream Sooner Than You Think

If you follow tech news, you probably hear a lot about 3-D printing these days. But 3-D printing still hasn’t gone mainstream, due in part to the high prices of the printers — but also because the devices are not really a consumer product yet. If companies like MakerBot, Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS), and Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) have any say in it, though, that may be changing sooner than you might think.

MakerBot recently unveiled its fifth generation of 3-D printing devices, along with new software the company hopes will make it easier than ever for customers to design and print objects. The company has actually opened up three retail stores where customers can go to see products firsthand. Last week, MakerBot held an event at its Boston store to showcase its new lineup of hardware and software. On the hardware side, it showed its new printers, Digitizer desktop 3-D scanner, and KeyShot 5, its latest 3-D rendering and animation software for Windows PC and Mac.

The company also has a pair of iOS apps in the works. AppleInsider reports that “MakerBot Mobile for iPhone will give users the ability to monitor and control the new fifth-generation printer, while MakerBotPrintShop on iPad will let users create and 3D print objects.”

The 3-D printers in MakerBot’s new lineup still cost significantly more than its two-dimensional counterparts. The Replicator Z18 printer retails for $6,499, while the standard Replicator model sells for $2,899, and the Replicator Mini rings in at a still-hefty $1,375. On the scanning side of things, the company’s Digitizer costs $799 and can scan a three-dimensional object in about 10 minutes. The catch is that it can only scan things that are smaller than 8 by 8 inches.

As for what you can make with these printers, AppleInsider describes the items MakerBot had on hand during the event: “Most of the printers were creating a hollow ball with a stand on the bottom. Creation of this item took about 30 minutes, making it a simple demonstration of the MakerBot printers and what they can do. But plenty of other, larger items were on hand, including a full-size Japanese kabuto, a chess set featuring squirrels, a pink guitar, an extremely detailed octopus, and small-scale versions of buildings.”

Another company that has started bringing 3-D printing to consumers is Staples. FierceRetail reports that Staples has partnered with 3D Systems to install 3-D printers in two store locations: one in New York and one in Los Angeles. At these locations, customers can create personalized products and use the printers to bring them to life. Customers can also come to the store with 3-D, print-ready files and have the objects printed in front of them using six different materials. If customers have more complex 3-D printing needs, Staples will take the order and send it to 3D Systems to be fulfilled.

And last but not least, this year, Adobe introduced 3-D printing capabilities in Photoshop CC. You can now check a box to send 3-D models to a 3-D printer, if you happen to have access to one. The application can even analyze the model you intend to print to make sure it will be able to support itself. If it finds that it can’t, the program can automatically add support structures.

Between MakerBot, Staples, and Adobe, plus a number of other companies, it looks like 3-D printing may finally be heading to the mainstream. With the price of the hardware always coming down, a 3-D printing future may arrive sooner than you think.

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