Tech Industry

A 3D printer in every garage? Not yet.

3D printing had a coming-out party of sorts at CES, but it's not quite ready for widespread adoption.

We awarded MakerBot Industries' Replicator a Best of CES award in the emerging tech category.

It's an exciting product. That doesn't mean you should go out and buy one.

MakerBot Industries Replicator 3D printer. Rich Brown/CNET

Are you a product designer, or a mechanical engineer? Do you see yourself starting a small business selling some doo-dad? Maybe you're a passionate hobbyist, a crafter, or an artist. If any of those things describe your interests, the Replicator may be a good fit.

A more generalized consumer certainly could use a 3D printer like the Replicator, or 3D Systems' more affordable Cube. You could make holiday ornaments for your entire office. You could print out 100 toothpicks topped with a tiny bust of your spouse for a birthday party. If your child loses a key Lego piece, just print out a new one.

Now playing: Watch this: The MakerBot Replicator makes anything!

One barrier to wider adoption might be price. The fully-featured Replicator, the model with dual extruders for printing two-color objects, costs $2,000. The monocolor Cube costs $1,300. Spools of ABS plastic, the printers' chief consumable, go for $50. Those figures aren't entirely out of reach, but they do put 3D printing out of Wal-mart.

The bigger obstacle is designing the objects you want to print. How are you at AutoCAD?

Unlike a 2D printer, whose content can come from anyone with the ability to hunt-and-peck out a grocery list, a 3D printing plan is necessarily more complicated. It's not impossible. MakerBot's Thingiverse Web site hosts more than 15,000 community-created plans, all free to download. 3D Systems has Cubify, a marketplace site where it sells user-made 3D plans.

You can find plenty of frankly amazing projects available to print on Thingiverse and Cubify. In 5 minutes I found a robotic hand, a serpent's head sculpture, and a playset for a gothic cathedral.

The problem is there's no guarantee anyone will have designed your particular customized toothpick.

Some of you might master full-fledged 3D design software. Others might use software that automates the design process. Leonar3Do and Sculpteo are two companies with possible solutions to this problem. There are other semi-affordable 3D printers out there, too. The tipping point for 3D printing may be close.

Of the two 3D printers at CES, we chose the Replicator as the best of the emerging tech category because it has better features than the Cube 3D printer. On top of dual-colored printing, the Replicator also has a larger print area than the Cube, which means you can print bigger objects. At this point in the life of the 3D printing market, functionality matters more than price. It won't be that way forever.