DIY fabrication hits a new price point (maybe…)

If the DIY Desktop CNC Machine gets funded, we'll be closer to personal replicators.

Pretty much every geek who has ever drawn breath lusts after a “Star Trek”-style replicator. The advent of 3D printing and CNC machines, such as the MakerBot, have started to make that dream a reality. They offer the DIY enthusiast the ability to create pretty much anything their minds can imagine (and render in a CAD program). But for all but the most devoted hardware hackers, the current price points — between $800 and $1,000 for 3D printers, around $600 for a CNC machine — are a little too high for comfort.

Note: Technically, 3D printers are just a specialized type of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine, and in fact, many machines can be interchangeably converted between printing and milling. But in general conversation, 3D printers work by depositing material, and CNC machines by removing it.

Woodworkers know there are your $50 tools, your $150 tools, and your $500 tools. Most casual hobbyists have lots of the $50 tools (drills, hand saws, etc.), and perhaps a couple of $150 tools (a drill press, a table saw). Buying the $500 tools is the big step into prosumer territory. That’s when you’re really committing yourself.

In the same way, there’s levels in hardware hacking. Soldering irons, multimeters and such occupy the lowest tier. Everyone has them. A soldering station and a bench power supply are in the second tier. High-end gear includes toys like a good oscilloscope and — until now — 3D fabrication gear.

So, what’s changed? Over on Kickstarter, the crowdsourced funding site, there’s a project that intends to put out a small CNC machine at a sub-$400 price point. The DIY Desktop CNC Machine, if funded, will offer a soup-to-nuts CNC solution that is cheap enough to move into the “everyone should have one” category, and out of the “gee, I wish I couple afford one” tier.

Critical mass occurs when tools like CNC machines cross a price-point barrier. We’ve already seen this in open source software. When C compilers were expensive, software engineering was out of the reach of the casually curious. Once GCC became the gold standard, anyone could code, and the floodgates opened. In the same way, the iPhone and Android development environments (cheap and free, respectively) have let anyone become a mobile phone developer. The result has been a cornucopia of great mobile apps.

If the Kickstarter project funds and is successful, 3D fabrication is poised to cross into casual affordability. We’re already seeing the cool things that people have started doing with 3D fab at the higher-entry-level cost. Many of them are ending up on Kickstarter themselves, such as an iPhone 4 camera mount that was first prototyped using a 3D printer. Now I’m dying to see what we’ll get when anyone can create the ideas stuck in their heads.

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  • I would definitely get one for $400.

  • Randy Crawford

    I don’t understand. What’s the appeal of a FAB/replicator that makes solid non-articulating objects? Is there really that much interest in making your own decorations?

    Or is there an implicit assumption that people will combine a FAB with some CAD software to forge individual parts that then will be assembled into a thing that hinges and pivots?

    Otherwise who needs a pretty brick?

  • Russ Gibson

    Yes Randy, for most projects, the person using the FAB would still have to assemble some pieces. It is not some sort of sci-fi universal constructor.

  • Jim McCracken

    I’m one of the lucky ones to own a fabber today (I have one of the referenced Makerbots from the top of the article)… and I rarely print a one-piece thing; typical objects for me have 2-4 parts and maybe a fastener or two to hold it all together. There are also makerbotters that print articulated parts in one go; recently I saw someone design and print a 608 bearing, ball bearings and all, on their makerbot.

    In fact, Russ has it dead on – it’s NOT a sci-fi universal constructor. It’s inaccurate – the smallest feature it can print is about half a mm, and the most precise it can place features is within about a third of a mm. These are good figures, but when that third of a mm can change from one layer to the next, you get an obviously less-than-accurate final object. In addition, the object has to be self supporting while printing. You can’t have little bits that hang in the air without anything under them, because when the printer goes to print them out, that’s how they end up getting printed – from the bottom up – and you end up with a pile of thin plastic filament that looks like a plate of spaghetti. Therefore, the last thing I released ( had no moving parts but still needed to be printed in two pieces, to satisfy the “no overhangs” rule

    BTW, technically, makerbot and other machines that print in ABS or PLA can handle overhangs of 50-70 degrees, depending on how well tuned the bot is (that third of a mm between layers starts mattering) – its just a general rule that you try not to have overhangs. “bridging” – an overhang of 90 degrees between two upright parts – is also technically against the rules, but you can bridge small gaps easily, as the plastic the visoelastic at extrusion temperatures.

  • Dan Royer

    This has been done before.

  • James –
    Thanks for the writeup. Very Nice.
    Also – thanks for the pointer to kickstarter.

    I found some additional projects to back.
    I’m concerned for the KATK project. Some of these kids might become chefs. I hope more people back it.

    Peter Grace

  • That’s correct, these inexpensive 3D Printers are not universal constructors, but it is astonishing to watch their progress, and some truly amazing things are being done with much more to come.

    They are gradually gaining capability both at the low end hobbyist/kit market and the high-end commercial market. Reasonable commercial printers are now in the $5-20K range, but they are dropping in price, too.

    Someday within the next few years we’ll see the right mix of features with price and you’ll start seeing these things appear in BestBuy and we’ll all be making things.

    We track the development of 3D printers on our daily blog – if you want to know what’s going on, give us a read: Fabbaloo

  • I see this as a coop activity. In DC there are a handful of coops because people don’t need these tools on a day to day. If five or ten people when in on one of these it becomes very affordable. Even then the use can be rented out on an ad hoc basis. Now the whole activity becomes really doable.

  • I think that perhaps DIY fabrication hit a price point that was too low and untested. I have created a machine that has been tested and priced appropriately. Its a little more expensive, but has more speed, power and cutting area.

  • James Turner

    It’s unfortunate that you feel the need to denigrate someone else’s project in order to (IMHO) shamelessly promote yours.

    And for the record, $1,050 for one of your complete machine kits is around 2.5x the $390 for your ‘competitor’s product, not what I’d call “a little more expensive”. The whole point of the article is that there’s a big difference in accessibility between a thousand dollar unit and a $400 unit.


  • Recently Brook Drumm started an open hardware project of self-made Printrbot, which is probably the simplest 3d printer. He has a page at kickstarter site, for $499 you get a full Printrbot kit. You are right, everyday there is something new happening in 3DP world.

    We provide daily news on 3D printing and digital fabrication, you can read more at