December 13, 2013      

MakerBot, one of the pioneer startups of 3D printing, has taken another step in making additive manufacturing accessible to the masses?instead of buying one of their printers (at $1999), you can go to one of three retail stores with a USB and a 3D design and print it there.

In-store prints, at either the New York, Boston or Greenwich, Conn. retailers, are priced by time; anything under thirty minutes is $10, while a two-hour print is $35, and a six-hour print $100. Anything over six hours requires a specialized quote from MakerBot. Print colors are slightly limited with white, black, translucent red, warm gray or natural being the standard options; other colors cost extra. But when you take a step back, not only is the accessibility convenient, it?s amazing.

What MakerBot and digital communities like 3D Hubs are doing is opening a relatively new technology to a consumer base, and if the public can benefit from rapid, custom manufacturing, then certainly larger robotics firms can.

Consider prototyping, a process that is equally lengthy and costly?and can very quickly become a budget breaker. But with additive manufacturing, and 3D design files, both time and money spent is significantly reduced. Where consumer 3D printing, like MakerBot?s retailers, works in basics, industrial 3D printers are capable of producing complex, multi-component objects with as many as ten different materials at once. So not only can a robot prototype be printed and assembled on demand, but it can be customized and redesigned almost as quickly, leading to a more cost-efficient project with a faster end-result.

3D printing is poised not only to affect manufacturing and product design and development, but to significantly increase end-user input into the process. MakerBot?s move to retail, while a strategic bid for holiday sales, shows a growing number of DIY-ers, especially in robotics. MakerBot?s Thingiverse, an online, crowd-sourced catalogue of 3D designs, includes 1,443 hits for robotics, including grippers and motor ends to full scale designs.

From consumers to high-end manufacturers, 3D printing has caught the attention of the robotics industry it doesn?t look to be letting go any time soon.