The machines aren't taking over quite yet, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they might be if you wandered into the Brooklyn, New York offices of Makerbot. On a recent afternoon, around 10 buzzing, humming 3D printers called Thing-O-Matics – just over a foot tall and a foot wide – sat in a row, patiently building plastic objects of various shapes and sizes. It's slow going now – it takes two days to make all the parts for a battery-powered dune buggy toy – but the idea is that eventually, if you need, say, a spatula, you could just turn to your Thing-O-Matic, feed a design into its control panel and an hour later be flipping pancakes. Or, as head of marketing Keith Ozar put it, "You can make a bobble head in it with your own head."
Users design their own patterns or pick from hundreds available on Makerbot's "Thingiverse" website (recently added: a clarinet mouthpiece, a bicycle tire lever and a protein model). Then, after the file is uploaded, a spool of ABS plastic (the same stuff Legos are made of) runs through a tiny nozzle, which heats it up and draws a pattern, over and over again, on a moving metal plate. Since its launch in January 2009, Makerbot has sold around 6,000 of the $1299 machines (they'll assemble the machine for you for another $1200).
Until the Thing-O-Matic and similar products like the Fab@Home, which was developed by researchers at Cornell, 3D printers were way too expensive for the average person – they cost upwards of $10,000 and had mostly industrial, architectural and medical applications. But the big machines have been doing cooler stuff lately too: last year, the first car created entirely by a 3D printer (a hybrid, not surprisingly) hit the road.
So far, the personal 3D printing business has proven popular among artists – Laurie Anderson used it to create 20 models of her dog Lola for an exhibit at Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop and Museum – teachers, engineers, and college students. "It fits on top of a mini-fridge perfectly," says Makerbot co-founder Bre Pettis. Might they be trying to utilize it for more, uh, recreational pursuits? "There is a model for bongs on Thingiverse, but ABS is flammable. So it’s a bad idea. It’s such a bad idea."
Watch a video about how the Thing-O-Matic works: