The desktop 3D printer

Yesterday, Andrew Sheppard pointed me at a desktop 3D printer for under $5000. That brought back some memories…

In the early 80s, I worked for Imagen, the company that made the first laser printer that sold for under $20,000, the first laser printer that sold for under $10,000, and the first laser printer that sold for under $7,000. We didn’t make the first laser printer that sold for under $5,000. That was Apple’s first LaserWriter, and although the company survived for a few years more, it’s really what did us in.

$5000 is still pricey for a desktop product, but it's plausible for a shared office printer. If Desktop Factory can get a few more thousand off the price, they'll have a viable personal product.

Why couldn’t Imagen get to $5000, when Apple could? The printers were really very similar: they used the same Canon marking engine (and hence, identical print speed, resolution, image quality, and reliability). Apple’s was PostScript-based, but at the time there weren’t any other PostScript printers. We had a clever architecture that used a lot less memory–and this was back when RAM was hundreds of dollars per megabyte wholesale. Most of the cost of a printer, once you paid for the mechanical parts, was in the memory.

But even with our memory-stingy printers, Apple had enough buying power to drive their costs below ours. We were selling a couple of hundred units a month; I don’t know how many units Apple sold, but I’m sure they were buying the same memory for their Apple IIs, Lisas (remember those?) and early Macs. So we lost the battle to economies of scale, and that’s a battle that’s hard to win when you’re playing against a company a hundred times your size.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the 3D printer market. Desktop Factory looks a lot like Imagen: an aggressive, focused startup built around one product. Desktop printers probably aren’t built around commodity parts, like processors and memory (and, for that matter, the Canon marking engine); the commodity parts are now much cheaper (RAM is pennies a meg). But what happens when HP or Apple gets into the game? Will Desktop Factory be the first to sell a 3D printer for hobbyists, or will we have to wait for Apple?

The LaserWriter drove standardization on PostScript, which in turn drove a new generation of text editors and typesetting products. That work is continuing with products like InDesign. 3D CAD software strikes me as being roughly where text editing and page layout was in the 80s. Is Desktop Factory the company that will drive a renaissance in 3D design tools? Will their printer interface become a de-facto standard that allows others to play? That’s what it will take for them to survive. These days, Imagen doesn’t even merit an entry in Wikipedia.

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