The in-store presentations use MakerBot 3-D printers, although Windows 8.1 will work with printers from other manufacturers as well. MakerBot was also part of Microsoft's keynote presentation at Build, when it released Windows 8.1 as a public preview and demonstrated many of its new capabilities, including 3-D printing. Microsoft has subsequently said Windows 8.1 will make printing 3-D objects as easy as printing Word documents.
3-D printing has been gaining mainstream attention over the last several months. The technology factored into a number of products at the CES consumer electronics tradeshow in January, and earlier this year, Cisco's futurists identified it as a potentially disruptive technology that could not only change the way many products are manufactured and distributed, but perhaps even produce artificial organs suitable for human transplants.
Artificial organs were among the potential 3-D printing benefits cited in a June 26 blog post by Shanen Boettcher, GM of the Startup Business Group at Microsoft. He said that for both consumers and businesses, the technology's real value stems from the creativity and customization it enables.
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"We don't think desktop 3-D printing will replace mass-production," he wrote. "The economics of making millions of the same object will always be more cost effective than individual or short-run manufacturing. Instead, people will use 3D printing to make custom creations."
Although the technology is still in its infancy, those with 3-D printers already can create a wide range of complicated objects. Some of the products have been controversial; the printers have been used to make guns, for example, that could potentially not only be unregistered but also, if the user relies on plastic materials, go undetected by metal detectors.
Most projects are less divisive. The 3-D printed objects that have generated buzz recently include Star Wars figurines, musical instruments and even cars.
A 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer "prints" out a vase from a Surface RT tablet.
As part of Microsoft's 3-D printing campaign, the company's retail stores have also begun selling MarketBot's Replicator 2 3-D printer. The printer can also be purchased from Microsoft online.
At $2,549, the Replicator 2 could appeal to product designers or enthusiasts but probably isn't the sort of thing most customers will pick up while browsing for a new Windows 8 tablet. Still, 3-D printer costs are slowly coming down, with some models running as low as $1200. They're also getting more attention from consumer-friendly outlets, including Staples and Amazon. As printer prices continue to drop, Microsoft's early investment in 3-D printing could prove a feather in Windows 8.1's cap.
In the meantime, the company can only benefit by showing off bleeding-edge technology in its retail stores. After all, the more curious onlookers Microsoft attracts, the bigger the back-to-school audience for Microsoft's discounted Surface tablets. The full list of participating Microsoft retail locations is available from the MakerBot website.