3D Printers – Busting The Hype, Praising The Opportunities

3D Printers – Busting The Hype, Praising The Opportunities image 3d pic 23D Printers – Busting The Hype, Praising The OpportunitiesBarack Obama is praising it as the “next revolution in manufacturing […] that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything”. Not only Mr. President heard about the buzz, 3D Printers pretty much became one of the hottest tech-topics of the past 24 months.

“Additive manufacturing”, the not-so-sexy name for 3D Printing, is hyped to be the biggest paradigm shift in manufacturing since the steam engine over 100 years ago. If the evangelists are right, it will redefine just-in-time manufacturing as it will make real factories, warehouses and inventories a thing of the past – along with a few other jaw-slacking expectations.

Jack-of-all-Trades coming with a Swiss-Army Knife?

3D Printers – Busting The Hype, Praising The Opportunities image 3d pic 13D Printers – Busting The Hype, Praising The OpportunitiesThese claims are quite dramatic. Let’s take a minute to look at the facts. 3D Printing, in contrary to common mass-production, creates objects layer-by-layer. As you neither cut or mill, little waste is left after production of mainly plastic, wax or recently even metal objects.

While the information for your office printer might be a Word-file, for a 3D printer it is a CAD-file. CAD is for computer aided design and the file format in which you can save all information of an object – be it a doorknob or a plane engine prototype. Today, additive manufacturing is mainly used for rapid prototyping of architectural drafts e.g., and in medicine. For instance, 10,000,000 3D printed hearing aids are in use worldwide, showing the power of 3D Printing for products in need of customization.

Busting the hype around 3D printing…

However, people have a pretty wrong perception of this miraculous technology. Many expect it to print ready-made lamps and maybe even computers. This is of course far from realistic. There is an almost depressing list of issues recently pulled together by Gizmodo. Here are the Top 3:

1. ) You can only print one material at once, or material with very similar melting temperatures. As the melting temperatures of metal and plastic are hundreds of degrees apart, anything you print will either be a geeky Yoda or just not functional. Now, look around yourself and tell me how many objects you see made of only one material – you will have trouble to find some and whatever you found is most likely a low cost product.

2.) One of the praised aspects of 3D printing is making mass customization affordable. However most single-material products rely on economies of scale – an effect additive manufacturing doesn’t benefit from. Printing a plastic screw or doorknob is not exactly an area that makes sense for 3D printers, both as this takes hours and is expensive.

3.) The objects are printed layer-by-layer, and you can often tell by looking at the result. Hence, the finishing of the surface is rather rough and normally colored with ink, posing a quality issue.

…but why you still may want to buy a 3D printer soon?

Even if rapid prototyping is not for you, I personally still think 3D printing will have a bright future. Although printing doorknobs and the like is not the way things will go, I envision 3D printers to liberalize the art of producing simple, yet personalized, objects. Think phone covers for instance. The key here is CAD-software to digitally design 3D objects.

Today, CAD-software faces serious usability issues and is a pretty tough nut to crack left to professionals. But so were making movies or photo editing 20 years ago, and today they are mass phenomenon thanks to liberalizing software. The same is likely to happen to manufacturing. The moment it happens, it will make people willing to pay for the added value of that unique phone cover they just made. Just like we pay extra for a precious, printed photo album of our last vacation.

PS: If that is all too serious for you and you’d like go wild (and a bit creepy): fly over to Akihabara, Tokyo and 3D-clone-print yourself for only US$ 1300.

Photo Credits: Makerbot.com

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