eBay created a buzz last week by opening a store — accessed via an iPhone app — for browsing through and customizing 3D-printed products, mainly jewelry. 3D printing has great potential because it allows manufacturers to mass-produce custom items instead of heaps of the exact same thing.
It could be the technology of the future — but not of the present, judging by the mostly simplistic and surprisingly expensive items offered so far.
That's clearest in the jewelry selection, which is provided by 3D manufacturing companies Sculpteo and Hot Pop Factory.
Though materials used with home 3D printers are generally limited to plastic products, industrial printers like Sculpteo's can churn out such premium materials as sterling silver. The company sells, for example, a signet ring available in a selection of three patterns: an anchor, a skull and crossbones, and what looks like an alien cartoon figure. Picking one of those patterns counts as customization, which will cost you a hefty $350.
If you like whimsical jewelry, there is no shortage on crafts site Etsy. Fanciful sterling-silver items include a Green Lantern ring for $54.99, a Pac-Man ring for $67 and a pair of "Doctor Who" wedding rings ("Time Lord" and "Companion") for $90. You could walk away with a handful of jewelry in exchange for that one printed signet.
Sculpteo also lets you downgrade its ring to any of 10 shades of plastic for $12.06. (Why the prices are so exact is a mystery.) But even that's not a bargain. That amount would get you one from a selection of dozens of novelty rings on Etsy in plastic, glass and even metal.
Hot Pop Factory sells mostly plastic jewelry, often based on repeating designs of cubes, triangles or circles. They range from $34 for earrings in the choice of white or black to $75 for a plastic bracelet of interlocking squares, circles or triangles (your choice). That sum is more than enough for metal, wood or leather items on Etsy.
MakerBot, the third company with an eBay store, sells a plastic watch for $59.99 with no customization options, save for the ability to swap out baby-blue and pink rings that hold the numbers on the watch's face. It's a rough approximation of a Swatch. But actual Swatch watches include five color options, each for $50. Swatch also offers several other designs for $60.
Some unique items in eBay's store include two customizable iPhone cases by Sculpteo. Of course, you can select colors — but you can also add engraved text, modify the shape using sliders, swipe your finger to manipulate the pattern on the back of the case or even print one of your photos on the case. Prices range from $24.88 to $34.88.
Those are the kinds of tweaks, and opportunities for creativity, that only 3D printing can provide. If eBay moves more in that direction — and away from simply selecting colors, which is often an option with cheaper mass-produced goods — it will start to realize the true potential of 3D printing.