Right now, 3D printers are handy at printing nicknacks, quick prototypes, and unique, one-off pieces for specialized equipment, but still the domain of hobbyists and “prosumers” who enjoy staying on the cutting edge.
Right now, 3D printers are handy at printing nicknacks, quick prototypes, and unique, one-off pieces for specialized equipment, but still the domain of hobbyists and “prosumers” who enjoy staying on the cutting edge.
Michael Morisy

3D printers, which can build objects right from home with the help of digital schematics, are growing in popularity and quality while diving in price. But are they coming to a home near you anytime soon?

That’s the question that came up a number of times last night at the first Boston 3D Printing Meetup Group, organized by Andy Jeffery of Figulo and hosted by Formlabs, which manufactured one of the first relatively low-cost, high-resolution 3D printers, the Form 1.

About fifty people showed up for the free beer, demonstrations, and to hear Formlabs founder Max Lobovsky talk about the state of the industry and where they all fit into it.

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His main message? 3D printing isn’t really new, and he showed off a video of stereolithography pioneer Chuck Hull demonstrating a similar technique — 25 years ago.

That’s a message Formlabs wants to reiterate as it faces a patent lawsuit over its technology, but it also underscores what has changed: Lower cost tools, and a new focus on making those tools as accessible as possible.

Formlabs regularly reiterates that it was designed primarily for and by designers, not tech geeks, and that pedigree extends beyond the printers’ beautiful design.

Formlabs bundles their products with custom software (a lot of their recent hiring has been software developers), and they are focused on a simple, accessible, end-to-end solution.

And people are eager to get their hands on the Form 1 and other 3D printers: A number of the folks I talked to last night had pre-ordered them or had gone and built their own 3D printers with varying success.

One woman I talked to said that she used her boyfriend’s printer to help produce rare or custom parts for her research lab that they might not otherwise be able to get, while others present were looking to bring 3D printers into the classroom.

Prototyping new gadgets was also a popular use, particularly among the start-up step (LevelUp used one to design its new QR scanner).

But for everyday people, just like in the early days of the personal computing era, there is no real compelling reason to purchase just yet. Sure, you could print out your own custom chess set, but that will cost you about $75 in the printable goop the Formlabs printer uses — and likely a few days for waiting for all the pieces to print.

A number of innovators are working to find that killer app so they are ready for when 3D printing goes mainstream. My favorite so far? Burritob0t, which promised “downloadable burritos” but never appeared to have quite made it to Kickstarter as its creator hoped:

Burritob0t.net prototype - Kickstarter rough cut from Marko Manriquez on Vimeo.

What uses do you see for 3D printers, whether in the homes of millions or just as a high-end tool for makers and dreamers? Let me know in the comments or at Michael.Morisy@Boston.com or on Twitter at@Morisy.