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3D printing from your fingertips

The 3Doodler is tapping a new market: People who want a 3D printer but can't afford one.

The 3Doodler is a 3D printer, but it’s a pen. This takes 3D printing and turns it on its head.

In fact the 3Doodler rejects quite a lot of what most people would consider necessary for it to be called a 3D printer. There is no three-axis control. There is no software. You can’t download a design and print an object. It strips 3D printing back to basics.

What there is, what it allows you to do, is make things. This is the history of printing going in reverse. It’s as if Gutenberg’s press was invented first, and then somebody came along afterwards and invented the fountain pen.

While the 3Doodler looks simple, the creators have obviously overcome some serious technological difficulties to get it working. One of the things that’s hard to do on 3D printers, at least hard to do well, is unsupported structures.

As anyone that owns a 3D printer will tell you, the cooling time for the plastic as it leaves the print head is crucial to allow you to print unsupported structures. Too hot and it doesn’t work, the structure sags and runs. Too cold and it just plain doesn’t work at all. From their videos, the 3Doodler inventors seem to have cracked the problem. Building a free-standing structure appears to be easy and well within the capabilities of the pen.

It also takes 3mm ABS and PLA as its “ink,” the same stuff used by most hobbyist 3D printers. I’ve got spools of this stuff hanging around my house, which I use in my own printer. But unlike my printer, which cost just under a thousand dollars, the 3Doodler costs just $75.

It doesn’t have the same capabilities, but that’s the difference between a printing press and a pen. It has different capabilities, ones a “normal” 3D printer doesn’t have. It’s not a cheap alternative, it’s a different thing entirely.

I’m currently watching the 3Doodler climb past its first million dollars on Kickstarter. When I say its “first” million I mean that. The project has more than 30 days left on its campaign and already it’s gone viral. This is the next Pebble. The next Kickstarter success story.

The creators have tapped into a previously untappable market: People who wanted a 3D printer but couldn’t afford one, and people who see the obvious potential of a fountain pen over a printing press, for both art and engineering.

The guys behind the 3Doodler made $60,000 dollars while I wrote this post. My hat is off to them. It’s not often someone comes up with an idea this good.

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on hardware startups over the course of the next few months, and rest assured I’ll come back to the 3Doodler. But not until they can type faster than they can make money.

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