The five things people ignore when they talk about 3D printing


science-unbelievableOn Sunday, I found myself staring at the news, watching a short piece on 3D printing. The host looked enraptured, the rumpled 3D printer was enthusiastic and played the part of product evangelist perfectly. If you hadn’t read about 3D printing before you’d likely have two conflicting reactions: “3D printing is going to take over the world” and “I don’t know what that guy is talking about.” So really, it was the standard mainstream media piece on an emerging technology trend.

Unsurprisingly, like nearly all coverage of its type, yesterday’s “3D printing for dummies” report overstated its end impact and underplayed problems with the technology, all the while leaving out important context. It seems there are certain things that people just don’t want to bring up when they’re busy getting psyched about the future impact of 3D printing.

3D printing is slow. 3D printers can manufacture things in incredible detail… at completely laborious speed. A few weeks back, while at Type A Machines, I watched a 3D printer create a plastic necklace. It slowly deposited layer, upon layer of filament, skimming back and forth over the small printer bed. In the half hour I was there, a light outline of the necklace had emerged, which looked more like a drawing. It was going to take a while. While I was there, I saw a replica of a human heart on a shelf that I’m told took the better part of a day to make.

Both Boeing and GE began 3D printing airplane parts last year to great fanfare. But the speed of 3D printing held these plans back from amounting to anything significant. GE’s began 3D printing fuel nozzles for jet engines and are on track to do 85,000 by 2015. Boeing uses 3D printing at a broader organizational level, but for only for very small scale print runs.

Consumer 3D printing is cool, in theory. Consumer 3D printers are extremely technical tools, requiring advanced computer-aided design (CAD) knowledge and engineering know how. They’re not entirely reliable and can only print small items using cheap materials. Further still, they cost anywhere between a few hundred and a couple thousand dollars, but the output, in most cases little, amounts to little more than novelty trinkets.

There will never be a 3D printer in every home. Consumer 3D printing has been forecasted to be a $ 70 billion market in 2030. The theory being that 3D printing will allow everyday consumers to replace out of production broken parts, or make toys — or whatever our strange amusements are — from the comfort of our home. But as Autodesk CEO Carl Bass told PandoDaily recently, the expense, materials limitations, and difficulty required to do this means that when the technology is at a point where it could have mass application, issues like upkeep, cost, and production complexity means we’ll most likely outsource our needs to neighborhood kiosks.

3D printing will never be a complete catch all replacement for manufacturing. 3D printing produces complex designs in one whole go. Single-piece manufacturing has some industrial use, but anything that has moving parts will need to be assembled and put together by hand. For the foreseeable future, the economics 3D printing  will not be able to compete with the efficiency and scale of current production lines, molds, and fabrication techniques, which have been honed over decades. Anything detailed, featuring a mixture of metals and plastics (so pretty much everything complicated you use) is out of the reach of current 3D printing technology. Until hybrid printing – machines with an interchangeable 3D printing head and CNC mill, able to cut away and add material – becomes less of a science fiction, 3D printing will only be capable make small parts used in the production process.

3D printing is part of a wider revolution in manufacturing, not the revolution itself. The rise of maker culture in the last decade was prompted by the rise of 3D-modeling software, vast increases in computing power and a huge decrease in the price of industrial manufacturing equipment, alongside the introduction of consumer level devices such as CNC mills and 3D printers. 3D printing is but one of many factors that has fed into a manufacturing culture that favors access to tools and sharing ideas.

You’re not taking up against the future by talking realistically about 3D printing. By better understanding its weaknesses, more people would be better equipped to play more directly to its strengths.

[image via ComicBookPlus]