The payback period of an investment is the amount of time it takes for that investment to produce as much money as it originally cost. The assumption is that any money made/saved AFTER the end of the payback period is what you invested for in the first place. The payback period, then, is how long you have to wait to start seeing a return on your investment.
A 3d printer is, obviously, an investment. For the people who are interested in 3d printers themselves the payback period isn’t really an issue, but for the people who are only interested in what 3d printers can do for them it’s a different story. A common question is, “What can you do with a 3d printer?” People like me are usually quick to skirt the question with a passionate description of the future of 3d printing…but it’s a good question.
What CAN you do with a 3d printer?
Or, more specifically, WHY would the average person pick up a 3d printer at Sears on their way home from work?
I doubt that the proliferation of 3d printers will turn a lot of people into “makers.” Most people probably aren’t going to ever design a single printable object. Does that mean they’d never get their money’s worth out of a 3d printer? Well, I’d like to argue that the average person absolutely WOULD get their money’s worth out of investing in a 3d printer. The only thing holding back 3d printers from being a good investment RIGHT NOW is that they cost more than $500.
What I did was I went through thingiverse and kept track of all the things I could find that served a practical, but not overly specific, purpose (the table is included at the end of this post). After I found something that looked practical, but pedestrian, I shopped for it online. I found that most things could be had for about $1-2 dollars, which sounds about right for hunks of plastic. A few things, however, were more expensive. To make this a realistic test of the principle I made an effort to price out the cheapest thing I could find. Even holding the costs down, the estimate came out to more than $400 in savings.
This doesn’t include costs like the raw plastic, or electricity, but I can’t imagine those are greater than or equal to the costs of gasoline and shipping, which aren’t included either. Obviously, one could perform a more rigorous analysis, but I think the point stands. An average person COULD pay back the cost of their 3d printer $1-10 at a time…just as soon as the cost of the printer comes down below $500.
The cool thing is that we’re right on the edge of that price point. A 3d printer, the eMAKER Huxley, just recently got down to a promotional price of $500 each (for preorders).
So, if you picked up a $400 3d printer, and started using it to make things instead of buying them, how long would it take you to get past the payback period? Estimating 30 minutes per print, and estimating 70 items in that list, it would take you just over a month of printing 1 hour a day to have saved the total cost of the printer. Of course…handy people who like to do things for themselves will benefit more from this technology, but I think everyone else will start to get used to the convenience.
It’s not just a question of how much money you save, but also how much time and frustration. Pretty much everyone keeps a microwave around simply because it’s waaay easier and quicker to use than an oven or a trip to a store or restaurant. When 3d printers come down to $100 they’ll pay for themselves so quickly that apartments and hotels will keep them in rooms, right next to the microwave. The convenience factor will be overwhelming because the payback period will be functionally irrelevant.