Is 3D Printing Approaching Its Inkjet Moment?

It can be difficult to wrap your head around the concept of home 3D printers. While the ability to print out a physical object using plastic that’s extruded from a print head sounds pretty cool, there have been mixed reactions as to what practical application this technology might have.

When inkjet printers were first available for home use, people weren’t sure what to make of those either. Who really needs the ability to print with such high resolution and in color? In 1991, who would pay the $1,095 MSRP on Hewlett-Packard‘s (NYSE:HPQ) color Deskjet 500C, then fork over $40 a pop for ink cartridges?

The early adopters tended to be computer enthusiasts who wanted the latest and greatest equipment, but inkjets soon gained popularity as people printed budgets and homework, then they took off when digital cameras went mainstream and an inkjet printer could produce near photo-lab quality prints. By 2010, Canon (NYSE:CAJ) was moving nearly 20 million inkjet printers a year, while HP’s sales were double that.

For tech geeks only, or seriously disruptive?

Compare that scenario to 3D printers today. A home 3D printer such as the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic is available for $1,099. Colored plastic used as the raw material for the printer is priced at $48 for a 2.2-pound spool. To date, most buyers of home 3D printers have been hobbyists, but that could be about to change. We reported earlier that plans for 3D objects — or physibles — are beginning to show up on file-sharing networks, showing that people are actually printing things with these devices.

The latest developments may point the way toward the 3D printer’s potential disruptive capability. Take something as innocuous as kids’ building toys. The LEGO Group is intensely protective of its LEGO building blocks, aggressively litigating against competing toymakers that attempt to make compatible bricks, such as Mega Brands (TSX:MB) and its Mega Blocks sets.

This protective stance keeps LEGO owners buying more bricks instead of combining them with less expensive building sets, and it helped the company to a 2011 net profit of $750 million. But what happens to this “brick wall” when code is released for a home 3D printer to spit out 80 adapter pieces that allow pieces from 10 of the most popular building toys (including LEGO) to be used interchangeably? LEGO is about to find out: the plans are freely available online.

Giving shape to replacement parts

Another interesting application showed up on Lifehacker. What do most people do when their 8-year-old dishwasher breaks down and the replacement parts to fix it are no longer available? Appliance manufacturers like General Electric (NYSE:GE) count on upgrade cycles to drive sales of new models. Part of that approach is pegged to the notion that parts for older machines may be hard to find or so expensive that consumers shrug and upgrade instead.

What happens when a home printer could simply spit out the necessary part, no matter how old the machine? The cost could be pennies and the time required just minutes. If that sounds far-fetched, Thingiverse already has the plans available online for nearly 2,800 replacement parts.

While there are still many hurdles to overcome, such as the cost of 3D printers, the ability to print larger objects, and the legality of making plans available, it’s easy to see a parallel between 3D printers today and inkjet printers in the early 1990s. They could well be poised to take off in a big way, and if they do, it’s hard to say just what businesses might be damaged or gain in the long run.

One thing you can bet on, however: if 3D printing goes mainstream, Hewlett-Packard, Epson (PINK:SEKEY), Canon, and other manufacturers of paper printers are going to be ramping up production of their own models.

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