3-D printing’s consumer market slowly grows

From pizza to prosthetics, new cars to human hearts, the feats of 3-D printing have made headlines for years.

But in a dimly lit room, amid the constant low hum of these printers at work, a much humbler mission is underway. Printers are fulfilling a print request for a small blue duck.

This duck, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, took just over 30 minutes to print in the 3-D printing lab at the USF Advanced Visualization Center (AVC). Once the duck was complete, the printer started playing a short song. The screen displayed a message that read “We love printing things!”

The invention of 3-D printing goes back to the 1980s, but only in the past decade has it moved into the realm of the everyday consumer, said Howard Kaplan, senior technologist and visualization specialist for the AVC.

“It’s a humongous industry,” Kaplan said. “I don’t think it’s just engineering at all. I think it spans a much wider variety I think in fact than (virtual reality) does. I think (virtual reality) would like to say in its marketing that it caters to a wide variety of people, but the utility of it is really not there yet.”

Objects are printed in melted plastic, built up layer by layer using a 3-D computer model as a guide. The plastics the AVC uses are ABS and PLA, which is what Kaplan said most consumer-level 3-D printing is done with. Prints can take hours depending on their size. Longer prints that the AVC receives are done overnight.

The printers that line the shelves of the AVC come in various shapes, sizes and price points. However, outside of the walls of USF, consumer-level 3-D printers can be found everywhere from Walmart to Amazon to Office Depot. The popular crafting site Etsy has users offering not only 3-D printing services but selling 3-D printed goods, ranging from jewelry to miniature crossbows.

On Amazon, the prices for 3-D printers range from a little more than $200 to upward of $20,000. For those students who don’t want to pay for a printer of their own, Kaplan said they can use the AVC’s 3-D printing lab. Prints aren’t free, but they’re cheaper than buying a printer and supplies.

Students take advantage of the printing lab for a variety of projects. Kaplan highlighted the fact that many students, from engineering to the arts, use the center for their research or for prototyping and sculpture making. However, not every task sent to the AVC’s printers is an academic one.

Caleb Hall, a USF senior business major studying restaurants, used the AVC’s services to print a cover for one of his knives. The cover, printed in black plastic, was designed to go over the edge of the knife to protect it in a bag. While Hall said it lost its grip after just a few weeks, he still has it. He looks at the growth of the consumer market for 3-D printers optimistically.

“There’s so much potential for growth that by the time they get super advanced and can reliably print organic matter it’ll be so easy to buy simple printers in the consumer market and there’ll be files to print nearly anything you want,” Hall said.

Caleb Hall, a USF senior majoring in business, 3-D printed a cover for one of his kitchen knives.  Photos courtesy of Caleb Hall

What makes 3-D printing so appealing is that it brings factory-grade technology to the average consumer, Hall said. It has the same appeal as normal home printers.

“Sure you could go to the library or a Kinko’s to get something printed on this hulking machine back before we were born, but then the technology got small and affordable,” he said. “Now, instead of needing access to a factory with an injection molder, if I want to make something like a desk ornament or a silly rubber band gun I can just 3-D print it.”

Kaplan holds a different view. Even though the market grows, Kaplan said, the technology at the consumer level hasn’t made very significant leaps in terms of the level of technology that goes into them.

“I think the consumer level printing isn’t changing much or hasn’t changed much, other than the fact that more and more printers are hitting market every month,” he said. “But the printers don’t seem to be that different in terms of their quality or ability so it’s kind of that just saturation of the market.”

Aside from that, there are a few factors holding 3-D printing back. While Hall expressed interest in purchasing a personal 3-D printer, he said he feels the devices are too expensive to be everyday household items yet. There is also an issue of software, as in order to 3-D print something, one must first have a 3-D model. That modeling technology, Hall said, is still out of reach for the everyday user.

Kaplan echoes this point. The transition from high-tech to household has been slowed by the 3-D modeling knowledge users need to make objects to print. Kaplan said there are models out there on the internet for people to download and print. Hall got his model for the knife cover from a professional chef subreddit. But eventually, Kaplan said, people will want to make models of their own, and that’s where they’ll hit a wall.

But beyond this, Kaplan said, users need to have a goal for their printing. If consumers don’t know how to make things to print or what they want to print in the first place, buying the printer is just a waste of money.

“If you’re new to the technology and you just go out and buy something without doing enough research or talking to people, then you’re going to get in trouble down the road,” he said.