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3D printer: It’s cheap, and portable, but do we have the ‘killer app’?


3D printing is a technology that has been, interminably perhaps, in search of two elusive features: a killer app and low price.

Portabee, tapping the entrepreneurial energies of an open source movement, has got a handle on the latter. It has put together the Portabee 3D Printer that sells for less than $500, cheaper than many regular printers.

Based on the RepRap open source community’s Wallace printer, the Portabee’s additional edge is in its portability. It can be folded into a laptop-sized case. The unassembled Portabee kit costs $480 whereas the ready-to-use model costs $699.

“The low cost is a big part of what we are doing, we have optimised our part list, and really worked to make a minimal machine. In this way we can break the $500 mark,” Portabee’s Daniel Warner told Anthill.

Open source’s ‘animal spirits’

“People instantly fall in love with the idea of 3d printing, and come up with a bunch of original things to do with the machines. We want to lower the barrier for entry and get more people involved,” added Warner, a former acrobat who has performed with Cirque du Soleil. Watch his video here. He is the “one with the terrible haircut and blonde hair.”

Portabee dipped into the knowledge base of the RepRap, which describes itself as “humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine.” On Wikipedia, it explains how:

“RepRap takes the form of a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap prints those parts, RepRap self-replicates by making a kit of itself – a kit that anyone can assemble given time and materials. It also means that – if you’ve got a RepRap – you can print lots of useful stuff, and you can print another RepRap for a friend.”

Warner says Portabee derived its minimal 3D printer from a “vast wealth of RepRap heritage.” It is now “trying to break into the market with some neat engineering and an attractive price point.” Besides its portability, enhancing some key aspects such as machine balance and axis stability has given Portabee an edge over other existing kits, he adds.

“Our aim is to distribute a portable, efficient and robust 3D printer, capable of performing at the level of the industry standard for fused depositation (on par with ultimaker.com) for under 500 bucks,” Warner says.

Portabee believes its cost is feasible, even at low volumes. That is because the cost of the major parts – Arduino microprocessors and stepper motors – has steadily come down. Besides, the company thinks its “efficient design lets us get away with a minimal set of printed parts.”

Tech limitations

The tech press that has covered Portabee so far point out some obvious limitations in the portable, low-cost 3D printer.

“While the Portabee can create objects that are bit larger than a mug (roughly 120mm cubed), that output is dwarfed by the capacity of the Replicator 2, which can print out objects with dimensions of 28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm,” points out VentureBeat.

Wired magazine, on the other hand, said the Portabee’s heated build platform helps prevent model warping during print jobs, but the bare-bones case design also increases the chance of accidental burns and damage during transport.

“The Portabee uses 3 mm filament and a 0.5 mm extruder nozzle — both good specs, but moving toward obsolescence with higher-resolution 1.75 mm filament and 0.4 mm nozzles becoming more widespread,” it added.

Regardless, the Portabee is good price innovation that might lead to greater adoption. But that brings us back to the question: What is a killer app for the 3D printer?

“This is something we have not seen yet with 3D printers,” admits Warner. “We believe it is our mission to expand the number of these devices in the hands of consumers so that we can really tap the global brain to come up with some great applications. Printed electronic circuits are very exciting to me lately, I would like to see something spectacular come out of this area.”