One Day Everyone Will Have a 3D Printer
Every man-made thing in the world is born out of need. I reckon the most basic way to question the future of the industry is:
Will every household have a need for a 3D printer?
The most commonly used anecdote when looking at the future of 3D printing is the comparison to the 2D paper printing industry. It's quite commonly reported that 3D printers will be as omnipresent as the familiar objects that the word printer used to represent. I suppose to compare the two, you need to look at why people started buying paper printers in the first place. The predecessors of computer-based image & word processing (leading to document printing) came in the forms of film photography and typewriters. Both were thriving industries in the years before the personal computer; there was an obvious and consistent need for hard copy documents and images. This more or less guaranteed the usefulness of paper printers for the home computer.
It's difficult right now to speculate as to the need for 3D printers, but I think it's fair to say that as there is no real necessity to print or create our own 3D parts, components, toys etc., the requirement may be lower than the hype suggests. As Dale Dougherty at Make: Magazine suggests, their use in the everyday home will, for the foreseeable future, most likely be limited to making toys etc.; or at least until there's a marked change in the creative productivity of Joe Bloggs.
The specifications of the machines that are within the price range of everyday household budgets are relatively limited. They are more or less entirely limited to polymeric materials (ABS, PLA, PS, Nylon). Although multi-extruder printers are starting to appear (see this), most of the printed components will be one or two colours/materials. Given the complexity of today's toys (I know some people who might put tablet computers in this category), kids don't seem to have as much imagination with rudimentary plastic toys (especially of one colour). This doesn't bode well for the utilisation of 3D printers for toy production.
Another popular use for 3D printers is for making decorative objects and furniture. I personally feel that with the limited choice in materials, decorative objects can sometimes feel cheap and tacky when printed in garish bold-coloured plastic (a good example of this). Having said that, there can be certain exceptions to this, especially when playing with lighting and adding other components to the 3D printed part.
I reckon the bulk of purchases of desktop/plug and play 3D printers will be made by people who want one rather than need one. Some printers will be treated as trophies; never used, always polished. As soon as they approach price points which put them in the reach of most domestic households, and as designs become more contained and unobtrusive, dads all over the world will start buying them for the home office. The new Micro 3D is a good example of this.
When any new technology opens itself up to a new market, there's almost always a wave of early adopters and (perhaps overly) eager beavers with romantic sci-fi notions of 3D printing your own iPhone 6.
People will want to have the ability to 3D print anything they want, whenever they want. They want to have the option. But after the first 3 attempts going wrong due to lack of experience, temperature or material problems, or just poor 3D modelling, people will begin to become aware of how much preparation, thought and finishing goes into a single print. In the long run, people will generally become less and less bothered about putting in the hours just for a replacement power plug, when they can just click "1 Click Buy" on Amazon and get back about their business. The "want" is likely to diminish.
Since we started, and since becoming daily users of desktop 3D printers (namely Makerbot Replicator 2Xs), we quickly came to the realisation that the portrayal of quick, high quality prints on demand was fairly rose-tinted.
Through my time and experience as a 3D printer, it's become apparent that a lot of the people who are supposed to know how to model in 3D (design, architecture and engineer students), still struggle to model for 3D printing. The first step to creating your own 3D objects is being able to convert them from an idea to a virtual (mathematical) model. This generally takes years of experience to get quite good at, though a lot of companies - particularly Autodesk - are trying now to create more and more simplified 3D modelling software. It won't be long before everyone is printing out their own "custom" sphere overlayed onto their own "custom" cube. Of course, you could just get your 3D model from somewhere else.
The next step is to develop an understanding of material properties and the systems that the printer uses to create the part. Knowledge of support angles, densities, overhangs, infills, shells and G-Code (the generic programming language for a lot of FDM printers) all come into play here. Then there's the print and bed temperatures and ensuring a level print bed. These are standard issues that need to be considered for every print. I won't get into the frequent maintenance routines.
What comes next, naturally, is a big pile of fails. It takes a certain level of experience to know how to get prints right first time. After a couple of late nights and prints failing 7 hours in, people will begin to feel less inclined to use their printers. And how many fails will it take before the user just gives up and uploads there STL file for printing somewhere online.
It won't be too long before the reality of owning and using desktop 3D printers becomes widely discussed, the hourly challenges start to grate and DIY workarounds become a huge creator of internet traffic.
Maybe the hardware and software will develop to fast that truly "plug & play" type machines are on the not-too-distant horizon, and 2 year old children will be successfully printing their own bibs. But, given the fact that we're all still struggling with our inkjet printers 40 years later, I somehow doubt it.
Euan Quigley, Co-director of ST3P 3D, a leading 3D Printing and Design company based in Glasgow, is passionate about 3D printing and the opportunities presented by this exciting technology. This article questions whether or not 3D printers will become commonplace in the home.
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