Diego Porqueras’ Deezmaker store in Pasadena, Calif., is a geeky version of Santa’s workshop, brimming with action figures, chess pieces and jewelry.
But instead of relying on elves, Porqueras has built his own one-man factory using 3-D printers capable of churning out plastic objects within a few hours. He sells the printers, which go for as little as $650, at the shop, which opened in September in a strip mall.
The 37-year-old entrepreneur is part of an emerging industry for affordable 3-D printers. The technology has long been used in the aerospace and automotive industries, among others, to create prototypes, but has slowly crept into the consumer market with simplified printers that can be had for a few hundred or thousand dollars.
“You can make so many things with them,” Porqueras said. “People who have businesses buy them for making prototypes. Parents buy them to make toys for their kids. Hobbyists buy them because they like to tinker.”
3-D enthusiasts imagine a day when these printers are as ubiquitous as phones and people print out many household goods instead of stopping at a store. Small-business owners are already switching to these printers from more expensive industrial machines. Prices are expected to drop even further after key patents on 3-D printing technology expire next year.
Usually about the size of a microwave, these machines “print” three-dimensional objects by melting plastic and depositing the material layer by tiny layer based on a three-dimensional computer-generated design of a necklace, say, or a fork. More advanced — and expensive — printers can use materials such as metal and chocolate.
For those who are less tech-savvy, there are new smartphone applications that streamline the process of crafting or altering a design. Online markets have also popped up in which shoppers can customize and order 3-D-printed clothing, toys, gadget accessories and other products.
Industry experts say 3-D printing could revolutionize traditional manufacturing, much as the Internet upended the music industry, and fundamentally alter how consumers shop and how much they pay. Some tech companies are already foreseeing a day when every home contains a 3-D printer churning out custom furniture and clothes, or a Kinko’s-esque store in every neighborhood where items can be manufactured on demand via printers.
It’s also raised concerns among law enforcement professionals, who worry that criminals will be able to print untraceable guns and other weapons at home.
“The billion-dollar question is, how big will this become and when?” said Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which tracks the industry. “You see companies already making fashion garments and jewelry through printing. And we have seen demonstrations of 3-D printing food and living tissue.”
Wohlers said that by 2021, the U.S. market is estimated to hit $10.8 billion, up from $2.2 billion last year and $$1.18 billion in 2008. The industry has been growing, on average, more than 25 percent a year for the past decade. The consumer side, which is in its nascent stages, is especially ripe for growth, Wohlers said.
Tech companies are already salivating at the opportunities.
In June, 3-D veteran Stratasys Ltd., which for decades has made ultra-pricey printers for companies such as Boeing Co. and General Motors Co., announced plans to buy MakerBot, which specializes in affordable desktop printers. Rival 3D Systems Inc. launched two consumer-oriented models this year, the Cube ($1,299) and the CubeX ($2,499 and up).
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