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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  • I think the LaserWriter won not so much for its own qualities, but because it was linked to a sophisticated content generation system: the Apple computer. The same situation holds true for 3D printers, in that complex content must be created and linked together with the devices. In other words, it won’t work unless it’s easy. Right now 3D printing is tricky for a variety of reasons, and we see some hardware vendors building relationships with software makers. It’s still very early.

    If you’re interested in following the 3D print space, please read our blog at!

  • Tom Finnigan

    This is an interesting product. Combined with the nextengine scanner, you can get a photocopier for 3d shapes for $7500.

    The format is already quite standardized – STL. It’s basically just a bunch of triangles written to a file, very simple. There are several 3d printing service bureaus that will take STL files over the internet, and ship your parts to you.

  • 3D additive printers are cool, but 3D subtractive printers are cooler – and some just as affordable as the $6K printer discussed here. They are called CNC tools, or in our case ShopBots. They are cooler because the same tool can make things of virtually any size from making a small circuit board to cutting out parts for a house. They work much faster than the additive printers. And, most importantly, they work in real materials (wood, plastic, aluminum, foam). They will also machine, carve or sculpt the same stl files as well as files from many other formats.

    Your can check out my column about subtractive printers as the way to kick-start robotics or you can visit our website: for more info on affordable subtractive 3D printing (CNC).

  • WHAT?!?! $5000?! How about $500!! Head over to the RepRap site at – of course “some assembly required” applies there – but if you’re posting on the “Make” site, you’d have to hang your head in shame if you didn’t see that as an opportunity!

  • I was just thinking of how you could have one of these in your desktop in 15 years. Imagine what PORN would be like then… and what you could do with this printer.


  • I think the Ponoko article makes a great connection between the two technologies and the Desktop Factory printer is a wildly exciting development.

    At the same time, there are some critical differences. With 2D printing you are dealing with bits and pixels or DPI which are fairly simple and, importantly, constant.

    With 3D printing, atoms are a much trickier thing to manipulate. The “1-7” coding on most plastic items is a massive oversimplification of the varieties of plastics currently used in manufacture. Specialized formulas enable stronger structures, more aesthetically pleasing finishes and myriad other variations.

    I think this variety will allow some smaller players like DF to grow rather than be beat in a winner takes all environment like we saw with desktop printing. We will also likely see interesting combinations of companies familiar with hardware development (printers) and materials science (consumables).

    In any case it is a fabulously interesting trend to watch develop. I invite anyone who is interested to check out by blog on the subject:

  • I think there are other issues that are different here. Before the printer price war there was ample need for printing. It was worth for companies to invest in making and selling printers. Are we at a point where there is ample need for 3d printing ?
    I don’t think so.

    Are the 3d printed stuff at the right price point with the right level of appeal for the consumer market ? Till this happens, its going to be tough going for manufactures of home printing machines. Of course its chicken and egg situation.

    There are 3 companies making some head way in this.


    Check out what they do.

    There success will help in opening up the makret and the demand for 3d printing.

  • Dan Hansen

    I had a chance to see the 2Bot in action. It’s a great subtractive 3d printer that uses wood or plastic or foam or anything that you want and it will create 3d models. The software was really cool also. I believe they are geared for architecture firms but they could potentially create anything. has some great models.

  • The purchase of a 3D printer to enable your rapid prototyping needs is now a business expense that is warranted to give your company the creative design edge

  • Geeat post ,keep it up man