Few people felt a need to get a personal computer until retail stores began selling them. Then everybody had to have one.
Are 3-D printers next?
New York-based MakerBot hopes to kick off the same kind of technology revolution by opening a retail store on Boston’s Newbury Street, giving consumers a close look at machines that could prove just as disruptive as the personal computer — low-cost 3-D printers capable of cranking out made-to-order objects, from Christmas ornaments to auto parts.
“You can take the things that you imagine and make them real,” said MakerBot’s cofounder and chief executive, Bre Pettis, at the Newbury Street store opening Thursday. “You can make something, and the only person in the world who has to want it is you.”
A 3-D printer resembles an inkjet printer for creating documents. But instead of squirting out ink, its print head extrudes
tiny dots of plastic. Guided by computer software, the print head gradually builds up millions of these plastic bits, layer upon layer, into solid objects.
Engineers and manufacturers have used large, expensive 3-D printing machines for more than two decades. But MakerBot builds versions that are simple enough for use by ordinary tinkerers, and priced at around $2,200 — the cost of a high-end personal computer or a large-screen TV.
Boston is the second retail location for MakerBot, which last year opened a store in Manhattan. The New York City location not only sells the printers but also does custom print jobs, like a 3-D version of Staples or VistaPrint.
The Boston store will offer a print-to-order service sometime in the future, Pettis said.
A Boston location makes sense for MakerBot because so many of its machines already end up here.
“Boston is one of our core customer locations,” Pettis said. “We’ve shipped a lot of MakerBots to dorm rooms in Boston. They fit right on top of the mini fridge.”
The Boston area is already home to a host of 3-D printing ventures.
Formlabs, a Somerville-based spinoff of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans to release a $3,300 3-D printer in February. Matter Labs in Cambridge makes software to let users design 3-D items inside a Web browser, and a Boston start-up called 3-Spark is developing a printer that will create objects with built-in electronic components.
The appeal of 3-D printers lies mainly in their ability to make practically anything.
PerkinElmer Inc., a scientific equipment company in Waltham, uses MakerBots to build prototypes of new devices. The company has also designed a software app for Apple Inc.’s iPad that allows the user to create and print a 3-D simulation of complex molecules.
Robin Smith, PerkinElmer’s vice president of research and development for environmental health, said that having a physical copy of the molecule for, say, caffeine, makes it much easier to understand how it will interact with other chemicals.
“Molecules have very specific optical orientations,” Smith said. “It’s very hard to see that when it’s on a screen. But when it’s in your hand, you can turn it.”
Meanwhile, Leon McCarthy, a 12-year-old from Marblehead, showed off a prosthetic hand that lets him pick up commonplace objects and even play football. McCarthy was born without left-hand fingers. But his father, Paul McCarthy, learned about the Robohand project, in which a South African carpenter and a puppeteer in Bellingham, Wash., created software for a printable prosthetic hand. The Leons used a borrowed 3-D printer to make their own customized version.
Leon McCarthy said a traditional prosthetic would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“The one you can make on the MakerBot 3-D printer is, like, $5,” he said.
When he recently broke the hand while catching a football, he simply printed replacement parts. And now McCarthy plans to customize it further, “making it more humanlike, making the knuckles rounder,” he said.
But Amy Machado, a printing industry analyst for IDC Corp. in Framingham, said it is unlikely that 3-D printing will enjoy anything like the popularity of personal computing.
“The hype cycle for 3-D printing is pretty high,” she said, but “you’re not going to see consumers purchasing these things and making objects for their homes” because a trip to Target or Walmart is cheaper and easier.
Instead, she believes that 3-D printers will be popular with hobbyists and entrepreneurs who are looking for a cheap way to design and build their products.
And Machado said that while MakerBot won’t make many sales to casual consumers at its retail stores, “it’s great PR for them, absolutely. It definitely creates buzz.”
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for MakerBot’s New York City store. The store is in Manhattan.