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
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.
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.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.
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.