3D printers can pay for themselves in under a year

The technology could save you up to $2,000 in one year

By simply printing out your own shower curtain rings, iPhone case, jewelry organizer or other common products, an average homeowner could recoup the cost of a 3D printer in under a year.

That's the conclusion of a study by Michigan Technological University (MTU), which used "conservative" numbers to find that the average homeowner could save up to $2,000 a year by manufacturing just 20 common products.

"It blows my mind you can print your own shower curtains and beat the retail price," said Joshua Pearce, an associate professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at MTU. "You can make exactly what you want. That's the real power of 3D printing. You're able to get custom-made things for prices that are under what you'd get from manufacturers in China."

Another advantage of 3D printing Pearce pointed to is being able to match shower curtain rings with bathroom colors or personalize a Smartphone carrying case with your name and own design.

The study also found that 3D printers could recoup costs and even turn profits because they can be used to print their own replacement parts, which could then be sold on sites such as eBay.

3D printer
A RepRap 3D printer used in the ROI study

The study took into account shipping costs and taxes, but it also considered a 20% printer fail rate where print jobs would have to be restarted. Even so, researchers who purchased items on Google Shopper, found the markup on common household products was so great that it far outweighed the cost of spray polymers and even printer parts.

"It cost us about $18 to print all the items and [the] lowest retail cost we could find for the same items online was $312 and the highest was $1,943," Pearce said.

In order for 3D printing technology to proliferate as 2D electronic printers (laser or ink-jets) have, they must be economically viable for a typical household. Pearce said the printers achieve that easily.

"The reason we did the study, and we didn't' know what the answer would be when did it, is a lot of people have been saying 3D printers are not ready yet or that a $3,000 printer will never pay for self," Pearce said. "I can print something out in four hours that'll save me thousands of dollars, but of course most people don't need to print specific scientific tools."

Using self-replicating rapid prototyper (RepRap) open-source 3-D printers, the MTU researchers were able to recover all printer material costs in less than one year, demonstrating an ROI greater than 200%.

In fact, 3D printers can manufacture approximately half of their own parts, Pearce said. RepRap printers can cost anywhere from a few hundred to more than $1,000.

"The results show that even making the extremely conservative assumption that the household would only use the printer to make the selected 20 products a year, the avoided purchase cost savings would range from about $300 to $2000/year," the study states.

A spoon holder printed on the RepRap 3D Printer
A spoon holder printed on the RepRap 3D printer

The study assumes at least 25 hours of necessary printing for the selected products, evenly distributed throughout the year. That would provide a payback for the investment in a 3D laser printer in 4 months to 2 years and provide an ROI between 40% and 200%.

"The unavoidable conclusion from this study is that the RepRap [3D printers] is an economically attractive investment for the average U.S. household already," the study said. "It appears clear that as RepRaps improve in reliability, continue to decline in cost and both the number and assumed utility of open-source designs continues growing exponentially, open-source 3-D printers will become a mass-market mechatronic device."

This article, 3D printers can pay for themselves in under a year, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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