In a small office overlooking Harvard Square, Greg Tao is scowling at his printer. It has jammed in the middle of cranking out a job. But unlike most of us, who fume and poke buttons on our inkjets or laser printers, Tao is futzing with a MakerBot Replicator 2, a $2,200 device that produces three-dimensional objects, one layer at a time. Right now, he’s trying to get it to make a stand for an iPhone out of a wood-like material. He cancels the job.
Tao’s start-up, Matter.io, writes Web-based software to let all of us adapt and customize three-dimensional objects, without instruction manuals or training seminars. Just as you might edit a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation for your next sales pitch, Tao envisions a day when you might tinker with three-dimensional objects made by someone else — perhaps a pair of glasses or a wedding band — and have them printed out on your own machine, or perhaps one at the neighborhood Staples.
“This is all brand new, wild west stuff,” says Dylan Reid, Tao’s cofounder at Matter.io. “We totally don’t know what the big uses are going to be.”
But the future isn’t as distant as you might think. Staples already sells 3D printers in the United States, and, in parts of Europe, allows customers to upload their 3D object files to a website and pick up the finished object at a store.
Boston is already peppered with small companies that will sell you a 3D printed ceramic espresso cup or a $3,300 3D printer that fits easily on the surface of a regular desk. Later this fall, Brooklyn-based MakerBot plans to open a retail store on Newbury Street, selling its (relatively) inexpensive 3D printers and scanners, which can turn an existing object into a digital file ready for manipulation.
There are two bets about the future of 3D printing. One says it will be like word processing — something that eventually reaches just about everyone. But the other says that these are tools for mechanical engineers, product designers, and perhaps a handful of hard-core hobbyists who want to make their own drawer pulls or blazer buttons.
Matter.io, backed by former MIT Media Lab director Frank Moss and serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer, is making that first bet. Moss envisions consumers choosing a toy or a pair of Crocs and being able to play with the basic object online, perhaps embossing it with their own images or text, and have it delivered from a local production facility the next day.
“It’s often hard to predict what the killer app will be,” he says, “but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for a consumer market here.”
But Tao admits that 3D printing today is still a “for nerds, by nerds kind of space.” The company’s goal is to make designing objects simpler and more fun, and see what emerges. One demo took an existing 3D design of a dragon and put Lego-sized dimples on the bottom, so it could click onto a standard Lego set.
A Boston start-up called Figulo has developed a process for 3D printing with a ceramic-and-glue powder that can then be fired in a kiln. One of the items they make is an espresso cup with a relief of a caffeine molecule on the outside. It costs $48.
It can be found on Shapeways.com, and is produced at Figulo using modified printers from Z Corp., an MIT spin-out that helped kick-start the 3D printing revolution in the mid-1990s (Z Corp. is now part of 3D Systems of South Carolina, the industry’s behemoth). Figulo chief executive Andrew Jeffery says the company is producing as many as 500 items a month.
But most of Boston’s 3D printing players have focused on business uses, like dental implants (Brontes Technologies, acquired by 3M) or creating software for the engineers who build automobiles and aircraft (PTC of Needham, SolidWorks of Waltham).
In May, Somerville-based Formlabs began shipping a $3,300 desktop 3D printer that can produce intricately detailed objects, such as a working planetary gearset. Cofounder Maxim Lobovsky says most of the company’s buyers are professionals who design physical products. The 32-person company has shipped more than 900 printers so far, he says.
Newer local players like GelSight and File2Part are similarly focused on more sophisticated users. Waltham-based GelSight, for instance, makes a $45,000 desktop 3D scanner. A Northeastern University spin-out, 3-Spark, is designing 3D printers that will churn out working electronics.
Cambridge venture capitalist Antonio Rodriguez, who previously worked for Hewlett-Packard, says he’s certain that 3D printers will become pervasive at places like FedEx Kinkos, where they can be accessed by lots of small businesses or individuals.
Will they make the leap to homes? Rodriguez, an early investor in MakerBot, says the software needs to improve, and a wider variety of materials needs to be available for printing objects. Overall, though, Rodriguez says he’s “super bullish” on the sector.
Marina Hatsopoulos, the founding chief executive of Z Corp., says the parts that today’s printers can produce are still low-quality, and printers need constant attention: “It’s not like your laser printer where you just push a button,” she says.
Despite an “absurd” level of hype around the potential for 3D printing to go mainstream, Hatsopoulos says it is still “a fraction of how big I thought it would be by now.”
I expect that 3D printing will have the biggest impact on professional engineers, designers, and some dedicated hobbyists. Still, there’s always the chance that we are looking at the first proto-PCs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and wondering, what exactly would the average person do with one in their home? We may not have seen the first killer app yet.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.