By: Gigaom
3-D printers: putting a factory on every corner
If hardware is the new software, 3-D printers are a big reason. New research holds that even enterprise-class 3-D printers will be affordable enough to be widely deployed within a few years.

People love the idea of 3-D printers. These devices can build (or print) all kinds of things from toys and (gulp) guns to houses.  And some tech visionaries say as the price of the technology comes down, 3-D printers could reinvigorate the manufacturing sector, even in high-cost economies like the U.S. which is now hard-pressed to compete with China and other lower-cost providers in manufacturing.

3D printing.

3D printer at MIT Media Lab could construct a building.

New Gartner research shows that price for “enterprise-class” 3D printers is falling enough that more businesses can (and should) start experimenting with them. It estimates that by 2016, these big-boy 3-D printers will cost as little as $2,000. But there’s no reason to wait. Companies should start experimenting with the technology now since there is minimal risk of capital or time.

In a statement, Gartner Research Director Pete Basiliere said:

“Businesses must continuously monitor advances to identify where improvements can be leveraged … We see 3D printing as a tool for empowerment, already enabling life-changing parts and products to be built in struggling countries, helping rebuild crisis-hit areas and leading to the democratization of manufacturing.”

Companies who jump in early can better get a realistic grasp of material costs and the time it takes to build parts and components, Gartner said.

To be sure, some affordable technology is already available at least to churn out small items. The Makerbot Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer, which made a splash at SXSW, lists for $2,199. Makerbot is also working on a 3-D scanner to ease the measurement and digitization of what needs to be manufactured. Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis told GigaOM that the Makerbot Digitizer, due this fall, will give creators another way to move designs between the physical and digital worlds. If you want to replicate a physical item, you scan it into the system which digitizes it and builds a 3-D blueprint which can be fed into the printer.

MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito is a huge fan of 3-D printing. At a recent event broadcast by the BBC, Ito reiterated his enthusiasm for the technology which he says can make high-quality manufacturing a key part of the U.S. economy again and boost the “maker movement” over all. As 3-D printing gains traction, more manufacturing may come back to the U.S. Ito is also investing in the sector. He, along with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, has invested in 3-D printing startup FormLabs.

In theory, the availability of inexpensive 3-D printers means that manufacturers can afford to make small lots of goods and then change up their production lines fast to meet new demands. This technology has spawned a new class of hardware-oriented startups and efforts. With the time-and-cost savings 3-D printing can provide, “hardware really could be the new software.”

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