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.