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Are 3-D printers worth it?

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And the makers have been busy. MakerBot's Thingiverse site hosts more than 80,000 digital design files that people can download to print anything from toys to tools. They can even tweak the designs in MakerBot's free MakerWare application.

"So that's the beauty of Thingiverse.com," Pettis told TechNewsDaily. "If somebody has an idea and they make it, they can share it, and the whole world benefits." (However, designs for weapons and any illegal items are not allowed.) 

The Featured section of Thingiverse, for example, includes customizable iPhone cases, a water bottle with cap, a model of the Winterfell castle from the opening credits to "Game of Thrones" and a "steampunk" version of one of the ghosts from "Pac-Man."

Both fun and useful applications, but not exactly cheap compared to the competition. High-end iPhone cases from companies such as Speck top out around $40. And even a stainless-steel vacuum-sealed thermos bottle sells for just $49.95 from REI. You'd have to make a lot of Thingiverse products to pay off the cost of the 3-D printer and the plastic spools you feed it — to say nothing of the time you invest.

Beyond doodads, a MakerBot can produce "revolutionary" things, as Pettis calls them. His favorite example is the Robohand — a prosthetic for children who were born without fingers. Two makers — one in the U.S. and one in South Africa — collaborated online to create the design. Anyone can download the design and print the components to make the prosthetic.

But very few people need to replace a missing hand — certainly not people in every home. [See video: 3D Printing: From Doodads To Prosthetic Hands]

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