CES this year had a huge area given over to 3D printing. Sadly, I found it about the most depressing area of the show. True, there were some interesting high-end machines and some very cool samples of work from commercial 3D printing service bureaus in a variety of materials. But the bulk of the space was devoted to consumer machines printing out the same tchotchkes we have been seeing for several years now. Prices for low-end machines continue to fall, dropping from the low four digits to the mid threes, but this nascent industry has year to make a case for why anyone but a relatively small group of hobbyists might want one.
3D printing has been the object of a lot of wild technological enthusiasm for a while. Googling “3D printing will change everything” turns up 2.6 million hits. Starry-eyed futurists saw a 3D printer in the basement replacing the need to buy manufactured goods while a different model in the kitchen would print out food from edible powders. But look at a consumer-grade 3D printer and more likely than not, it will be printing a bunny or a Yoda head.
I believe 3D printing has tremendous commercial potential. It, along with the functionally related technique of CNC machining, have created a way to fabricate prototypes of manufactured objects much faster and much cheaper than traditional model making. For mass production, traditional manufacturing techniques such as injection molding, die casting, and stamping will always be cheaper and faster, but 3D printing has tremendous potential for very short run customer manufacturing, especially with the development of increasingly capable printers that can laser-sinter metal powders into complex metal objects.
Medical researchers are conducting fascinating experiments with 3D printers, particularly the construction of printed objects that can be used as scaffolds to grow body parts. Artists are using 3D printers to construct objects that would be difficult or impossible to create with conventional techniques. (A number of these were on display at the mathematical art exhibit at the recents Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore.)
The techno-optimism surrounding 3D printing can’t seem to go away. Nick Graham, founder of Joe Boxer, wrote for Business Insider:
The world will transform from a macro-manufactured supply chain to a micro-manufactured supply chain, or what is known as distributed manufacturing. And this supply chain will not be thousands of miles long. Rather than one factory producing 10 million toys a month, there could be 10 million factories producing one toy a month, and those factories will not be overseas, but in your kitchen, your garage or wherever you feel like putting your 3D printer.
He also cited a CNN report in which $18 worth of plastic and electricity was used to 3D print consumer goods with a retail value of as much as $1,900. But as a business guy, he sure knows that this is like valuing a BMW based on its weight in steel, aluminum, and plastic. I suspect Joe Boxer never priced shorts based on their weight in cotton.
The fact is that printer in your kitchen or garage isn’t happening unless you are a hobbyist. I think there are a number of reasons for this:
- Most people can’t really think of anything they want to print in 3D. This is a problem that won’t go away.
- The output quality of consumer-grade printers is poor. 0.3 mm resolution sounds good, but you can clearly see lines that mark the layers of deposition, not the smooth surfaces produced by molds. Increasing the resolution to improve quality leads to bad tradeoffs between lower tolerances (read, more expensive) and even slower printing than the already painfully slow process.
- It is very hard to design an object to be printed. Most people have no idea of how to use CAD software, or of how to design and object that is actually printable. All they can really do is run designs they download from sites such as Thingiverse. The software is thankfully getting better and steps such as Adobe’s announced pan to add 3D support to its Creative Cloud applications is a major help, but 3D design will always be difficult.
- The printers themselves are very fidgety and require a lot of calibration and adjustment and close monitoring of temperatures.This should get better as the machines improve.
The bottom line is that 3D is just not a very attractive proposition for consumers and not likely to become one. The scenario it think is more likely is much wider availability of 3D printing service bureaus. If you know how to do designs today, you can already send your print file off to a company such as Shapeways and have it produce your model in any of a wide range of materials, including plastics, ceramics, and metals. Soon, you may be able to take a broken object from home to a 3D scanner-equipped shop, have in scanned, and order a custom manufactured replacement part, though in financial terms, this will probably only make sense for things for which conventional replacements are not available. There is real benefit in this, but it is hardly revolutionary.