There’s no denying the appeal of being able to create new objects from streams of molten plastic — or, as most people know it, 3-D printing. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Intrepid printers have created working prosthetics, airplane equipment, and gun parts.
This potential has led venture capitalists to invest tens of millions of dollars in related startups. Shapeways has raised $47.3 million in just a few years; MakerBot raised $10 million before selling to Stratasys for $403 million in June; and Formlabs has raised more than $20 million for its low-cost printer. Describing the industry as “nascent” would be underselling it.
But despite its promise, 3-D printing has yet to offer much utility to consumers. It’s easy enough to print knick-knacks or sculptures or toys, but the average person has had little exposure to the convenience of being able to make something out of (almost) nothing. That might be about to change — but not as much as some might hope.
KeyMe is today announcing that it has partnered with Shapeways to allow its customers to order 3-D printed keys directly from its iPhone app. Users can order a plastic key for $10 or a solid gold key for $4,000 — if they’re feeling particularly lavish — and can save a digital copy of the key so they can print one out for themselves, if they have a 3-D printer of their own.
The partnership is KeyMe’s latest attempt to become the go-to service for people who have managed to lock themselves out of their homes. The company also allows users to order new keys for delivery, have a new key created at custom kiosks in select 7-Elevens, or send key details to nearby locksmiths. (The last two services are currently available only in New York.)
It also shows how 3-D printing might one day provide some benefits to people uninterested in doodads or product prototypes or gun parts. This is a useful service that anyone who has ever locked themselves out of their homes can appreciate, and being included in the rest of the app lends the feature a bit of normalcy.
Unfortunately, the price of getting these 3-D printed keys might prevent the feature from becoming little more than a novelty, at least in the short-term. It’s cheaper to order a normal, cut-metal key than it is to order even the plainest of 3-D printed keys. KeyMe’s emphasis on the ability to print lavish keys (see the solid gold key mentioned above) and custom designs further demonstrates that ordering one of these keys is about the novelty more than it’s about utility.
Eventually 3-D printers and the items they create will be cheaper. When that happens, we’re meant to believe that consumers could print common items like screws, nuts, or keys. KeyMe’s newest update shows that this is a real possibility, but it also shows that objects made with hot, carefully-laid plastic will remain a novelty, at least for now.
[Disclosure: PandoDaily shares investors with both Shapeways and MakerBot.]