Three-D printers have the potential to spark a revolution of creativity and self-sufficiency.

It looks like this: you use your last drywall anchor in the middle of a shelving project and, instead of running to the hardware store, you turn on the printer. You design a nightlight in the shape of your child’s favorite animal and you turn on the printer. You need a spare house key and you turn on the printer. It’s going to happen, but there’s one big thing holding us back. Today, a decent 3-D printer costs at least $1,500.

A price tag alone can delay a revolution.

Two reasons caused regular computer printers to catch on—a development that took more than thirty years: The cost went down far enough that most could afford to buy one and printing shops opened up for those who couldn’t. The same changes are already starting to occur in the world of 3-D printing.

Bringing down prices
This month, Matt Strong, a product developer in Pleasant Grove, Utah, started a campaign on Kickstarter to build and sell a clone of the MakerBot Replicator, one of the most popular 3-D printers on the market for hobbyists. He’s altering the design a bit here and there and renaming it the TangiBot, but the biggest change is the price. He wants to sell his machine for nearly a third less money than MakerBot.

The Replicator’s design is licensed as open-source hardware and it’s available for anyone to see and use. “All the data was there in some form, but I had to go through and clean it up and verify the materials,” says Strong.

The main thing he wanted to do was find a cheaper way to produce it, namely by setting up an assembly line in China.

Critics have accused Strong of working against the spirit of open source by trying to resell a product without contributing anything to its design. However, Strong says that he is applying creativity where it is most needed—in the printer’s manufacturing.

“The way something is assembled is absolutely additive. That’s how prices come down,” he says. “A lot of people want to see the project taken down. I’m not going to do that.”

Strong has caused some alarm in the open-source community (though MakerBot itself has maintained a diplomatic silence). So far, he has reached less than 10 percent of his funding goal on Kickstarter. But even if his project fails, he has loudly declared that the MakerBot could be manufactured for less, and it’s only a matter of time before someone does it.

A lesson from history

Such a development could very well push the price down to about $1,000 in the near future, which is the same amount you would have paid for Hewlett Packard’s first personal DeskJet in 1988. At that price, HP was able to sell enough printers to awaken a whole new market and from there on out prices plummeted. Those who still could not afford to buy a printer benefited from a relatively new service. By the nineties, Kinko’s copy stores were selling printouts by the page.

This trend is just emerging with 3-D printing. A passerby looking through the window into Diane’s Mail Room, a shipping provider in Buckley, Wash., can see the 3D Touch, a $4,000 double-headed 3-D printer, next to the laser printers and inkjets.

“We’re probably the most innovative mailbox store you’ve ever seen,” says owner Ted Griffiths. “We’re probably the only retail store in America that’s got one.”

He bought the printer in February and charges $15 for every ounce of plastic that is used to print something.

So far, only about four customers a month come to print on the machine. They use it for small, personal jobs, just as you would use a copy machine at your local library. Griffiths has made dice, model airplanes, and bride and groom cake toppers from 3-D models of the real people. “We had a couple people coming in to get little car parts made for old cars, windshield wipers and stuff for their pickups,” he says.

The trickle of customers hasn’t dampened his faith in the technology. Griffiths says he plans on upgrading soon to a ProJet 1500, a higher-end printer that sells for $14,500.

“If it takes us five years to get this thing to where people are coming in and using it all the time, that’s okay,” he says. “Ten years from now they’ll have these in Walmarts.”

It’s difficult to imagine. But, then again, 40 years ago the idea that you could print ten identical copies of a resume probably didn’t even occur to most people.

They just went on punching out every letter on a typewriter.

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