Everyone’s heard that 3-D printing is going to change the world, but have you thought about how it’ll affect our favorite hobby? I predict that 3-D printing will be huge for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. Keycaps are the most obvious application, but plates, stabilizers, cases, and other parts are all ripe for 3-D printing.
Right now, the only way to mass produce high quality keycaps is to own industrial-grade injection molding equipment–machines that’ll cost you $100-200k or more, not to mention the cost of keycap molds themselves. Current 3-D printing technology has been used with promising results in the keyboard world, but it’s not ready for primetime yet. For now, companies like Signature Plastics, GMK, and BSP have an unassailable advantage simply because of the capital (machinery) they already own. But as home 3-D printers become more capable of printing refined, finished products at lower prices, these companies will face real competition from the home/DIY market. Why pay $100+ for a new set of keycaps that you can print at home (or at a local library, university, etc.) for $30 in materials?
Of course, keycap manufacturers will probably employ 3-D printing technology themselves to stay relevant. In the future, we might see the concept of a minimum order quantity (MOQ) disappear–a company like SP will be able to keep designs on file and print them on demand for customers.
Mechanical keyboard builders will be able to print their own plastic components (e.g., stabilizers, switch housings, even plates and cases) instead of scrounging for them online or waiting for group buys. In time, even home PCB printing will become more accessible.
It also remains to be seen how 3-D printing will affect the market for artisan keycaps. Currently, artisans who are skilled at molding and casting resin keycaps are few-and-far-between and have a captive audience. Will Click Clacks still command huge sums in the marketplace when every other enthusiast can print identical copies at home? So far, counterfeit caps haven’t dented the price of genuine pieces, but cheap, capable, and accessible 3-D printers could change the landscape quite a bit. Of course, art and skill will always stand out, but we may see artisan keycap designs sold as digital blueprints instead of physical products.
Of course, eventually even mechanical keyboards will be obsolete, replaced by voice and motion recognition, increased automation, and eventually, even neural links. (My prediction is that programmers and us hobbyists will be the last holdouts.) But until that day comes, you can expect 3-D printing to make a big splash. 3-D printing is expected to grow by a factor of 45x-120x in the next 5-10 years, so you can bet we’ll see the technology make waves in our hobby.
Image source: Wikipedia