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Thursday, February 21, 2013

A 3-D Printer on Your Kitchen Counter

A Factory on Your Kitchen Counter

Robert Wright for The New York Times

The Printrbot Jr. in the process of making a 3-D model of a house.

In his State of the Union address last week, along with the standard calls for education reform and energy independence, President Obama gave a shout-out to a growing technology. In a lab in Youngstown, Ohio, the president said, “Workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything.”

When Brook Drumm saw clips from the speech at his home outside Sacramento, Calif., he wanted to reach through his TV and give the president a fist bump. Mr. Drumm, a bald, goateed father of three, designed the Printrbot, a desktop 3-D printer kit. Like a number of other 3-D printers, it uses heated plastic â€" applied layer by layer to a heated bed by a glue-gun-like extruder â€" to turn designs created on a computer into real objects.

As Mr. Drumm illustrated in the Kickstarter campaign he used to raise more than $830,000 to start his business in late 2011, the Printrbot is small enough to fit on a kitchen counter, next to the Mr. Coffee. “The goal for the company,” Mr. Drumm said in world-beating tones, “is a printer in every home and every school.”

The technology for 3-D printing has existed for years, and President Obama was referring to its applications in manufacturing. But there is a growing sense that 3-D printers may be the home appliance of the future, much as personal computers were 30 years ago, when Dick Cavett referred to the Apple II in a TV commercial as “the appliance of the ’80s for all those pesky household chores.”

Like computers, 3-D printers originally proved their worth in the business sector, cost a fortune and were bulkier than a Kelvinator. But in the last few years, less expensive desktop models have emerged, and futurists and 3-D printing hobbyists are now envisioning a world in which someone has an idea for a work-saving tool â€" or breaks the hour hand on their kitchen clock or loses the cap to the shampoo bottle â€" and simply prints the invention or the replacement part.

Bre Pettis, the chief executive officer of MakerBot, the Brooklyn-based company leading the charge in making 3-D printers for the consumer market, has seen how the technology is already being applied. “We have stories of people who have fixed their blenders, fixed their espresso machine,” he said.

A file-sharing database MakerBot oversees, called Thingiverse, currently holds more than 36,000 downloadable designs. “One of my favorite stories from Thingiverse is a dad who has a daughter who is 41 inches tall,” Mr. Pettis said. “They were going to an amusement park, and she wasn’t going to be able to go on any of the rides because the minimum height was 42 inches. The dad made orthopedic inserts for her shoes.”

Last fall, MakerBot opened what may be the first retail store devoted to 3-D printers, in Lower Manhattan. Inside, demonstration models of the company’s Replicator 2, a slick, steel-framed machine with the boxy dimensions of a microwave that sells for about $2,200, are constantly printing, turning files created on Trimble SketchUp and other computer-aided design (CAD) software into things like architecture models or smartphone cases.

Emmanuel Plat, director of merchandising for the Museum of Modern Art’s retail division, said that in his experience, watching a 3-D printer work can induce future shock. “When people see the machine function, they’re mesmerized,” said Mr. Plat, who counts himself among those impressed.

As part of its “Destination: NYC” collection in May, the MoMA Design Store will feature a Replicator 2 printing New York-themed items for sale, like a miniature skyscraper or taxi; people can also buy the printer, Mr. Plat said.

In an age when shooting video with a phone and sending it to a friend across the world is old hat, it’s not easy to wow anyone with technology. Still, everywhere he goes lately, Mr. Plat said he hears people gushing about 3-D printing. “The word is out in the design community and creative community,” he said. “The applications are limitless.”

A version of this article appeared in print on February 21, 2013, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Factory on Your Kitchen Counter.