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3-D Printers Now On Sale At Your Neighborhood Home Depot

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to a product available at a retail store near you.

SIGNE BREWSTER: I think most people don't even realize what they are, and they just walk past them.

CORNISH: That's Signe Brewster, staff writer at the technology blog Gigaom. We're talking about 3-D printers sometimes going for as much as three grand at your neighborhood Home Depot. We asked Signe Brewster, who's buying these things?

BREWSTER: Since 3-D printers were invented in the 1980s, it was a very enterprise-focused field. An engineer might prototype an item for a car, and it used to be that, you know, you'd send it off to China to be made, and then it would be sent back two weeks later. But with the 3-D printer, you know, they can print it immediately. And it just really speeds up that design progress. So it's also of interest to artists and architects and just anyone who's designing something and needs to quickly iterate on it. Slowly, since the early 2000s now, it's been turning to consumers. And in the future that's going to be a lot more common.

CORNISH: So what should we make of the choice of Home Depot specifically?

BREWSTER: Home Depot is a place where people who are making things go - or fixing something. And 3-D printers really fall into that. So, you know, if you have something break at home, and it might be a part that's no longer made or it's very expensive, if you have a 3-D printer, you can make your own and print it at home. So it's those people who are ready, you know, very handy, they could be very interested in this.

CORNISH: So you could, like, make your own drill bit, right?

BREWSTER: Well, that might be a little bit difficult. You're printing in plastic, and it might not be the strongest drill bit.

CORNISH: Ah. So there are limitations here?

BREWSTER: Yes. There are plenty of limitations for 3-D printers. If you have a desktop machine, you're printing in plastic, and it's not going to look great all the time. It's water-soluble all the time. Like, you're not going to be making dinner plates and cups and - but yeah. I mean, if - for example, I - you know, I broke a toilet handle. And it was a time where it was like man, this part is really difficult to find. I would love to just print this at home. But that wasn't quite available to me yet.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of the market in terms of whether it's actually growing. This seems like the kind of technology where every year they say this is the year people are going to start buying this thing. But does it feel like the year for 3-D printers?

BREWSTER: The 3-D printer companies would definitely have you believe right now that everyone is buying them. But we've only just now passed 100,000 printers sold every year. And that is expected to continue to double. But I don't think that they're quite ready for everyone. I wouldn't recommend it to people who aren't tech savvy, people who aren't comfortable popping open a machine and fixing it when it breaks because 3-D printers do break. They're not quite at the place of a desktop 2-D printer, you know. They're not for everyone. So I think it's coming. There's a day where printers will be easy enough for everyone to use, but it's not this year.

CORNISH: Well, Signe Brewster, thanks so much for talking with us and for making some recommendations.

BREWSTER: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Signe Brewster, staff writer at the technology blog Gigaom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.