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3D Printers: Why Nobody Needs One For Christmas

Oh, by gosh, by golly, are you really going to print some mistletoe and holly?
8 Tech Turkeys To Avoid As Gifts
8 Tech Turkeys To Avoid As Gifts
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Are you thinking of buying one of the early technology adopters in your life a 3D printer this year? You'll first want to make some room in their garage beside the Segway, programmable bread machine, and NordicTrack.

3D printing, an admirable industrial technology that's been around since the late 1980s, now wants to be a consumer item -- for all those consumers who need to rapidly prototype their product designs, I guess.

Sensing a market opportunity, a slew of companies have emerged with what they say are consumer-friendly, even "child-friendly," 3D printers. (Read, mechanical engineering degree not required.)

Here's how one press release we received this week characterized the glorious possibilities: "While not quite 'Tea, Earl Grey, Hot,' [our printer] just might be the closest thing on Earth to home-based Star Trek tech."

Right. And those "sea monkeys" I bought with my own money may someday grow into real monkeys.

Even if consumer 3D printers drop massively in price, I don't see the use case. Put another way, how many times does the average family need to manufacture a toilet handle or replicate a beloved plastic toy?

None of this is to say 3D printing is a technological dead-end. Far from it.

3D printer shipments will more than double every year between 2015 and 2018, by which time worldwide shipments are forecast to reach more than 2.3 million, according to a recent market analysis from Gartner. Moreover, Gartner sees big growth in the low end of the market, devices costing less than $1,000. These printers made up 11.6% of the total in 2014, but will grow to 28.1% of the $1-to-$2,500 range by 2018, Gartner said.

When it comes to just-in-time, custom 3D printing, look no farther than the local hospital, where the right part at the right time can literally mean the difference between life and death. Indeed, interesting and important work is ongoing on 3D printers that use biological filament to build three-dimensional objects.

[For more on medical applications of 3D printing, check out InformationWeek's slideshow, 3D Printing Reshapes Healthcare.]

And as space fans probably already know, NASA just last month announced that a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station manufactured the first 3D printed object in space.

As NASA explained in its press release:

"Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working 'machine shop' in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, which will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts."

In other words, the ISS's 3D printer won't be used to produce rubber (okay, plastic) ducks for its Zero-g shower.

What's more obvious to me is the emotional impetus behind consumer interest in 3D printing. And, no, it's not a Trekkie fantasy of owning a food replicator.

Rather, people like to produce things, material things. How else can one explain the profusion of woodworking, knitting, and pottery magazines in 2014? Despite our digital, always-connected lives, it turns out many people still want to get their hands dirty.

But if this urge to make stuff is what's behind consumer fascination with 3D printers, there are far easier and cheaper approaches.

Instead of dropping nearly $1,000 on a 3D printer and accessories, how about gift wrapping some modeling clay or a few woodworking tools? You can even add a subscription to a craft magazine -- the printed kind.

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