In good news for consumers and long-term bad news for fabricators of some machine parts and other goods, office-supply retail king Staples said Friday it would begin selling the Cube 3D printer, for $1,299. It will be stocked in a limited number of stores, however, the company said.
Three-dimensional printers, which use scans of small objects and reproduce them layer by layer with plastic or other substances, are arguably the wave of the future that could do for manufacturing what laser and inkjet printers did for the publishing industry: make consumers less dependent on companies and able to solve problems and be creative without leaving the house.
Best for Small Parts
"This is a huge step toward making 3D printers common," said technology consultant Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. " These are best for small parts that are hard to find or difficult to get."
The advent of 3D printers have raised concerns that criminals or terrorists could use them to fashion plastic guns or other weapons that would pass through metal detectors. But Enderle said that for now, the capability is low.
"They could be used for low-quality weapons but ammunition and reliable operation would be problematic," he told us. "Currently the plastics used aren't good for weapons, but that will change."
For now, 3D printers are best used for artists and mechanical engineers or architects who want to make scale models of their designs, but they can also be used to replace parts such as those used in their one-dimensional counterparts that wear out over time. Often replacing them costs more than the printer.
It's a long-term investment, though, since the plastic cartridges the Cube uses sell for $50 each.
"Staples is excited to bring the power of 3D printing to our customers, by being the first major U.S. retailer to announce the availability of this innovative technology that lets you create fully formed objects in your home or small business," said Mike Edwards, Staples executive vice president for merchandising. "Staples is known for carrying the latest technology, and 3D printers are the most recent example of our commitment to offering every product your business needs to succeed."
Tool for Empowerment
The Cube 3D is made by Rock Hill, S.C.-based 3D Systems Corp. In announcing the printer's availability, Staples said the Cube is "ready to use right out of the box," is equipped with Wi-Fi, and is compatible with Mac or Windows. It comes with 25 free 3D templates designed by professional artists, with additional templates available online.
In March, Gartner Research released a study predicting that enterprise-class 3D printers for under $2,000 would be widely available by 2016.
"3D printing is a technology accelerating to mainstream adoption," said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner, in a statement. "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."