Why 3D printers won’t go mainstream

by Joseph Flaherty on March 15, 2009

No one wants to be Ken Olson predicting “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” or Charles H. Duell, who in 1899 claimed that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

That said, I think 3D printers will not cross over into mainstream use, just as highly touted pen based computing technologies failed to.

5 Reasons why 3D printers won’t go mainstream

Blurb Wedding Book

1. Publishing on Demand didn’t

A book is one of the simplest manufactured objects possible. Compared to the intricacies of consumer electronics, automobiles or other complex object a book is a cakewalk. Companies like Lulu, Blurb, Tabblo, Shutterfly, and Apple have developed awesome services and nice businesses printing photo books for parents or portfolios for architects, but they haven’t fundamentally changed the way we purchase books.

plastic_recycling_classification

2. Plastics Are Complex

The simple 1-7 classification you see on most plastic products are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to plastic formulation. Plastics are made of a variety of compounds that provide aesthetic benefits, improve durability, flexibility, opacity, etc. The Objet Polyjet 3D printer is starting to tackle this herculean complexity It may be possible to recreate a subset, but we probably won’t see the ultimate variety of manufacture on our desktops. People drastically underestimate the complexity of plastics engineering and the impact it has on manufacturing.

3. 3D Printers and plastics are expensive

A mid-range 3D Printer costs $40,ooo and the output still needs to be finished by hand. Material costs for 3D printers can run 50-100X more expensive than injection molded plastics that are superior in function and finish. An object the size of an external hard drive would take ~12 hours to manufacture, where the equivelant parts could be molded in minutes.  The economics of mass production are going to be on the side of traditional plastic manufacturing processes for some time.

zcorp-3d-printer

4. Plastics are large and intricate

The world of plastic parts splits into large and complex. Computers, printers, televeisions, etc. are larger than the build chambers of 3D printers. Smaller objects like cellphones are made from assemblages of processing hardware, shielding, and plastic/metal/glass that make up the aesthetic component which makes production and assembly difficult and potentially dangerous. Zcorp’s ZPrinter 650 has the world’s largest build chamber at 10x15x8″ and it is the size of an industrial fridge. Unlike old room sized computers we probably won’t see dramatic miniturization since atoms are the gating item instead of electrons.

5. Designing is hard, designing in 3D is REALLY hard

Take a look at the galleries at Zazzle or Cafepress. You will find some amazing work and a lot of amatuer crap. Add the complexity of the physical world and the need to make mechanically functional parts and you can imagine how much harder it will be for people to make excellent products, nevermind something “insanely great”.

I hope I join the ranks of Olsen and Duell as a short-sighted prognosticator on this point, but 3D printers have a great deal of development to undergo before they can realistically make their way into our homes. Even if they fail to make it to the home great companies life FigurePrints, Paragon Lake, and others are finding ways to make them work in the commercial setting.

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  • http://www.jujups.com Sivam

    Hi Joseph,

    Many things that you point out is true and its time to take on the hype. Well done.
    Few things to consider though.

    Personalization can add extraordinary value to products and 3D printed stuff may grow only in this realm for a while.

    The final product may not rely on the material properties of the print material. 3D printed stuff can be coated , plated ect.

    Limits can be set on what creative freedom you give to the customer as we have done in JuJups.

    So far Figureprints is the only company that seems to have taken 3D printing to the consumers in a substantial way. They have have found a great niche – where the value they create far exceeds the limitations of the technology. Wonder what the next niche is going to be ?

  • http://www.genomicon.com Nick Taylor

    Hi

    I agree, and disagree – I don't think we'll all have 3d printers the way we have 2d printers… but maybe not for the technical reasons given. Technical problems have a way of falling.

    I think we won't have them because we simply don't need that much 3d stuff… and the 3d stuff we do need, tends not to be unique each time the way the output of our 2d printers is: our letters, documents, spreadsheets etc.

    What has happened… and which might not have happened if the dice had rolled the other way, 500 years ago, 5000 years ago is that we've made 2 dimensions our medium for codifying spoken information – the majority of our “killer applications” are to do with communication (in fact I can't think of any that aren't) and… well, communication has an inbuilt need for uniqueness of output. 3D artifacts not so much.

    Lula et al haven't swept the floor of the publishing world, because the problem that the publishing world solves for us… the physical production and distribution of other people' writing, isn't what Lula is about. Something like Kindle will probably take this space (Kindle being a shopping aid more than a reading aid (Amazon are smarter than they look))… but Kindle is currently tethered and monotasking… so although 10% of Amazon sales now happen via Kindle, they'll eventually fall prey to a machine that runs Linux/Android. I would have thought. Eventually.

    There are economies of scale pushing from the other direction though – I can imagine a point where it's cheaper for a hospital to “print” it's own scalpels etc than ship them from wherever they're shipped from.

    Still, if in doubt, look to toys or weapons – which is where the first implementations of new technologies are often expressed.

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    Nick,

    Great comments! I think you are right about the lack of need for customized products, at least the type that 3D printers would enable. Almost any complex consumer electronic is either meant to blend into the background e.g. Flat Screen TV or some dependent on computer hardware that it would be difficult to design around e.g. Cell Phones. That said I think we will see customization of products in the world of fashion, in toys (as you mentioned) and other products with short lifecycles. I think the technology that enables this is more likely to be a laser cutter or CNC Mill though.

  • http://www.solidsmack.com Josh M

    dude, LOVE IT. I am so doing an antagonist post to this one ;) BE PREPARED!!!

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    GAME ON! Bring it Mings!

  • http://www.solidsmack.com Josh M

    Ok brother, you got it. here's the post for Why 3D Printers WILL go Mainstram :) hugs

  • http://www.shapeways.com/blog/ Joris
  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    Joris,

    FANTASTIC post, it was like a folded chair being smashed over our heads. I think the preconditions for widespread acceptance you proposed are a bit off, but the reasons why mass production have a future were spot on. Thanks for this!

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    Josh,

    You have some great points in there, just be wary, I am climbing the turnbuckle and about to leap forth with a flying elbow of 3D printer truth!

  • http://www.shapeways.com/blog/ Joris

    Joseph,

    Thank you so much!

    I would be curious to see who is right about what, maybe we should make a bet?

  • http://www.fluid-forms.com Andreas Jaritz

    I am not quite sure if I can agree with you on the thing with customization for products with short lifecycles. I think a true value conveyed by online product-design-tools should be to enable people to create great stuff they really like…in terms of enjoying a thing, an object, furniture, jewelry maybe fashion or whatever for a long time…Why should I put efforts on customizing a product which only remains for a short period of time by my side, on my body…?

  • http://blog.ponoko.com/2009/03/25/the-3d-printing-debate/ Ponoko Blog

    [...] days ago digital production blog Replicator outlined five reasons ‘Why 3D Printers Won’t Go Mainstream‘. The expense and complexity of plastics as well as the difficulty in designing 3D objects [...]

  • http://jameswhite.com James

    You'll be able to get a MakerBot soon for only $750!

  • http://www.setpointusa.com/ automated industrial equipment

    Aside from the costs of the materials they use, 3D designs are hard to do and time consuming as well. I doubt that they'll go mainstream in a thousand years.

  • http://www.rap-man.com/ Martin Stevens

    It sounds to me that the arguments listed may be true (although one certainly is false) but they are not really valid arguments against mainstream 3D printing.

    The one that is wrong is price. A1 Technologies has recently launched the RapMan, a 3D polymer printer which sells in the UK for £750 (ie just over $1,000). Who will not engage with 3D printing at that price? The answer, based on our experience of the first couple of months after the launch, is no one.

    We are getting orders from schools (which is how we targeted the RapMan initially), from colleges, from universities, from hobbyists, from geeks, from designer makers, from small companies which have never before engaged with 3D printing because they couldn't afford it, from companies which already use 3D printing but who want to make models costing a few cents rather than a few dollars, and even from large corporations, which also want to save money, particularly during the credit crunch.

    So as I see it, 3D printing is going mainstream, it is going there fast and it is going there now.

    Martin Stevens
    CEO
    A1 Technologies
    http://www.rap-man.com
    +44 777 565 1028
    info@rap-man.com

  • http://www.sunglassesuk.com/Aviator_sunglasses.asp Aviator Sunglasses

    3D printers are good for architect and engineers because they need in their jobs.. 3D printers have advantages and disadvantages depending on how you'll work on it..

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  • http://www.cartridge.co.za Cartridge

    Great post and something really to debate here, it would really be great id this would go mainstream, but we will have to just wait and see.

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    Only some single american flag wallpaper stages will take some report of your time.

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