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Need a 3D printer? Hit the hardware store

Home Depot and MakerBot team up to bring 3D printers to the masses. Here's why the unusual pairing makes perfect sense.

At the end of the paint supplies aisle in the Home Depot in Emeryville, Calif., a steady stream of people stop to ogle a new display.

Esha Horton hovers over it, making adjustments while simultaneously fielding rapid-fire questions from customers. Horton works for Makerbot, and the display is the first of its kind for Home Depot: a 3D printer -- the fifth-generation MakerBot Replicator, to be exact. Nine other Home Depot stores in California, Illinois, and New York are likewise hosting 3D printing displays and selling the printers. The effort is the result of a partnership between the hardware superstore chain and MakerBot, which has been selling 3D printers for the last five years. Watch our CNET News video to learn more about the pilot project.

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In the few hours we spent with Horton, all manner of shoppers stopped by, from construction workers to tattoed hipsters. I wondered whether they saw this as a DIY alternative to hardware store purchases. Why buy a wrench, when you can print one at home?

Admittedly, I was somewhat surprised by their collective curiosity in this high-tech toy that's more at home at Maker Faire than a few steps away from the garden center. They asked whether the printer needed to be cleaned and were intrigued by MakerBot's mobile app that lets you monitor print status from your smartphone.

After chatting with a couple of them, their piqued interest made perfect sense. This was their first close encounter with a 3D printer. And let's be honest, these black boxes are crave-worthy. I didn't think I wanted one, but then I caught myself on Thingiverse -- MakerBot's 3D file-sharing site -- drooling over a fish cookie cutter of all things. I started to dream about printing Star Wars figurines to hand out as party favors at my daughter's next birthday.

Horton herself owns a Mini Replicator (at $1,400, the cheapest of the three printer models sold at Home Depot) and uses it to make cat toys and gifts for friends. Her enthusiasm is apparent as she explained to an Irish gentleman how the extruder on the printer works. He seemed to grasp the technology immediately.

"It's like a fancy glue gun," he said. Pretty much. But better.