I just read Chris Anderson's new Wired Magazine cover story on how 3D printing "Might Just Change Your World", and while I'm already skeptical that the technology is going to be as revolutionary as its supporters say it will, this article made me even more so. No doubt, it's going to be an important tool for hobbyists and designers, and for assorted applications here and there, but Wired wants to convince us it's going to be more than that. Here's Anderson:
You might think of 3-D printing as bleeding-edge technology, relevant only to geeks or high-end design workshops. But you may have encountered a 3-D printer already, in circumstances so prosaic you didn’t even notice.
Let’s start at the dentist’s office. Many custom dental fittings are now 3-D printed—like the series of mouth guards, each slightly different from the last, that are used to change tooth alignment over months. After a dental technician scans the current position of the teeth, all positions intermediate to the desired end point are modeled by software and then printed out in plastic. Also, if you’re lucky enough to have a dentist who can replace a crown in a single sitting, it’s because models are 3-D printed and then the replacement teeth are milled right there in the office.
And that’s just the tooth business. Practically every consumer item or electronic gadget you own has been prototyped on a 3-D printer; ditto for the newer buildings around you.
OK, so custom dental fillings, that's pretty excellent -- and also a relatively rare example where customization is so important. And prototyping, that's great. (And niche.) What else? Custom-made toys. And? Anderson, the man who coined the term long tail, doesn't really say what the long tail of 3D printing is going to be. He's suggesting that 3D printing, when costs come down, is going to be about as ubiquitous as 2D printing (once) was: " Soon," Anderson predicts, "probably in the next few years, the market will be ready for a mainstream 3-D printer sold by the millions at Walmart and Costco."
But look around your house at all the items you have. How many of them really make you think, "You know, I kind of wish I could 3D print this."
Ironically, I think it's Chris himself who makes the best case that 3D printing is going to be a niche compared to how industrial things are already, generally speaking, made:
That doesn’t mean we’ll 3-D print everything. The big win of the digital-manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between mass production and customization. Just because you can make a million rubber duckies in your garage doesn’t mean you should: Made on a 3-D printer, the first ducky might run you just $20, but sadly so will the millionth—there is no economy of scale. If you injection-mold your ducks in a factory, though, the old fashioned way, the first may cost $10,000—for tooling the mold—but every one after that amortizes the initial outlay. By the time you’ve made a million, they cost just pennies apiece for the raw material. For small batches of a few hundred duckies, digital fabrication now wins. For big batches, the old analog way is still best.
That's quite a qualification. Because unless I'm missing something, mass production just about covers, say, nearly every item we could ever want. Sure, we'll probably wear some jewelry that's been 3D printed, and play with custom dolls that have been 3D printed. But that still seems like a specialty market you do on occasion, from a specialty business -- instead of something you do on your own, with a 3D printer you'll buy at Costo or Walmart. Which after all, already have nearly everything you could want in your consumer life, without the need to ever hit Print.Tweet