3D Printing Hype: Will It Last?

A lot of excitement has been building around the technology known as 3D printing within the last 1-2 years. The question that we should be asking ourselves is: Is 3D printing the revolutionary game-changer that we are being told it is?

The excitement and talk about this emerging field has been accelerating at a fast pace. Many people are beginning to awaken to this technology with leaders such as former Wired chief editor Chris Anderson speaking exuberantly about 3D printing and news sources writing about 3D-printed guns and bioprinting at an ever-increasing rate. Makerbot co-founder and CEO Bre Pettis has staunchly supported 3D printing and its “potential to change the way we make almost everything.” But once one has settled into this supposed era of mainstream 3d printing where analysts predict that soon every home will have a 3D printer, one wonders if this is a realistic approach or just inflated hype.

The Washington Press has written that “…because of the excess hype, 3D printing will soon suffer the same backlash as solar energy and electric cars” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/wp/2013/08/02/lets-curb-our-3d-printer-enthusiasm-folks/). This is an exciting new technology that makes people feel empowered. There are a lot of expectations floating around about being able to download any object from the Internet and printing it at home quickly and inexpensively without the need for traditional manufacturing with its long lead times. But perhaps we are expecting too much from something that, for all its possibilities, isn’t about to change the world.

Another source, VoxelFab, gives a number of reasons why 3D printing is not profitable. Certainly, the idea that startups like Reality Renders can make huge amounts of money with a 3D printer is still science fiction. For the present, the mention of 3D prints and customized product manufacturing will draw some attention from consumers, but as with other emerging technologies, interest will wane as people move on, and the novelty feeling wears off. According to Gartner, 3D printing has reached its peak, and we should see the hype surrounding it to fade before leveling out and likely causing inflated profits of many 3D printing companies to crash. What should also be said is that hype does not have a strong correlation to profits. The average person may investigate this new method of manufacturing, but at this time, the advantages don’t seem to outweigh the cost, complexity, and lack of quality involved.

The Wall Street Journal has recently reported that there are still a number of reasons why 3D printing won’t be as big as it has been played up to be. Some experts are still of the opinion that 3D printing is not about to replace traditional manufacturing or reach mainstream acceptance if ever. So where will this new technology take us?

I believe that interest in 3D printing will decline somewhat as the ‘newness’ appeal wears off. Industrial and commercial applications will continue to advance as new developments are made; however, penetration into the consumer market will likely be less than anticipated. This is for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that the average person may not see how they are personally impacted by the technology. True, 3D printing opens a lot of proverbial doors and opportunities to “make anything you can imagine.” However, there are few traditionally-manufactured goods that are not available for much less than with 3D printing.

Additionally, using a 3D printer is complicated and time-consuming. Keeping one of these machines running, especially the Makerbot or the relatively inexpensive open-source RepRap 3D printers, is not an easy task. The high maintenance required and wide array of settings to be controlled for best results are likely to drive those not technically-inclined to frustration. This complexity is possibly the greatest barrier to entry. My experience with 3D printing is that many people have difficulty grasping the concepts and processes involved, even animation students who understand 3D. Consumer printers such as the Cube and Up! Mini try to simplify the printing process, but this comes at the cost of control and quality, and there are limitations on what they can print.

3D printers have a limited range of objects that they can print, and there are inherent limitations in the technology. Most personal desktop printers are used to make small toys and trinkets. Commercial 3D printers have much broader uses and do have potential for manufacturing; however, the main uses are for rapid protyping and small production runs. So while 3D printing can create new opportunities, it is not as revolutionary as many people expect. Also, many people do not understand the limiting factors of the technology. 3D printers will certainly become cheaper than they are now, but we should not expect much increases in quality. Layer resolution, or the vertical height of each layer in a 3D print, is difficult to improve, and there does not seem to be much progress in this area. Nozzle diameter is another aspect that has mechanically-imposed limitations. In the case of wall thickness (the minimum thickness of a 3D-printed part), it is unlikely that thinner walls will be realized using the current processes.

In addition to these reasons, I do not foresee a transition from the current common method of FDM (Fused Depositions Modeling, used by desktop 3D printers) to other, more advanced methods. As patents expire, it is possible that expensive commercial printers will become less expensive and available to a broader market. However, I do not think that in the future, personal 3D printers will use nylon powder or the PolyJet process.

So what can we really expect from this emerging technology that is beginning to gain traction and widespread acceptance? It seems unlikely that it will gain any significant market penetration within the next several years, based on current statistics. Despite what others, such as Disney, have been predicting, I doubt that the machines will become a common sight anytime in the near future. Some fields, such as the medical and engineering industries, will adopt 3D printing for specialized uses, but the mass manufacturing model has worked well and will severely limit practical applications of 3D printing.

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