Tuesday, October 02, 2012

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3D Printing: If Chris Anderson and Wired Can’t Convince Me It’ll Be Big, Who Can?

3d printing world changing

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.


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The principle of redistributing both manufacturing and design is something that has a global effect. It may not be that we all have to run our own printer but a local manufacturing point will produce things closer to home.
We don't need to ship products in packaging half way around the planet.
We might not all end up as product designers either but we can be.
We have the interesting distribution and collaboration in data through virtual worlds too.
So I think we should not over simplify this as only printers in the home. The point is its an option.
The manufacturing and design industries will be impacted though the economics of only making as needed and not shipping atoms will change the planet.

Roland Legrand

What should we think about the relevance of virtual environments for 3D printing? Will SecondLife, Cloud Party, OpenSim or other open ended environments be particularly useful in collaborating and designing prototypes in this regard? Or will it just be one of many possibilities to collaborate on 3D designs for printing, and not necessarily the most obvious one?

Hamlet Au

"particularly useful in collaborating and designing prototypes in this regard"

Quite likely, I mentioned that possibility in my book -- but those platforms have less than 1M people, and only a small percent of the population actively engages in 3D prototyping.


It sure helps with privacy: print your own sex toys.

Dartagan Shepherd

As yet, it's not a replacement for large scale manufacturing.

That it saves enormous costs in prototyping is a given.

It also has the capability of eliminating the need for manufacturing short and medium runs and replacing them with on demand manufacturing.

A case in point. I had a small woodshop-made product that we had too many orders for. Labor was cost prohibitive for growth at that early stage as well as overly investing in mold or CNC equipment and facilities. It could have made as easily from printable materials as wood.

Sending these products off for mass production was also not an attractive option during this stage.

If 3D printing were available at the time it would have solved the intermediate growth phase, in that I could have set up 20 or so 3D printers and gone with on demand manufacturing before moving to mass production or equipment and facilities costing millions.

There are many untapped markets for on demand manufacturing beyond hobby and home use, although for going from a hobby/home business to a full blown business it may be the right solution depending on the product.

There are millions and millions of parts for existing products that would be better suited to on demand manufacturing and 3D printing that would make it a more attractive option than pre-mass manufacturing and stocking.

Mass home use? Perhaps more useful than you think if a company could send you a file of the part to be printed rather than manufacturing and mailing it to you.

Time will tell.

Dave Durant

Costco? Yes and no..

Yes, you'll probably be able to buy one there or somewhere similar in 2013.

No, it will *not* work the way you want or expect it to.

The problem, right now, is really more of a software one than a hardware one. We have hardware under US$2k now that can print layers at under 1 micron, which is pretty damned thin. You start losing tactile/visual differences on resolution at about 50 microns or so, so the hardware is willing.

The software, OTOH, has a bazillion decisions to make. The settings for a print that you want to use in some mechanical device (like a gear or something) are very different than what you might want to use for something like an artsy object.

The problem is that none of the current software packages know how to determine the right settings to use for a particular object. We haven't worked out the math &c to "look at" the object and say "oh.. this is a gear so do X and Y" or "oh.. this is a sculpture so do A and B" and all that.

You might be able to get a shiny new MakerBot at Costco next year but it's been made by people who think cars should only need one gear. It'll work fine for some limited set of circumstances but it will become angry if you try to take it out of its comfort zone.

This is not a new thing for MakerBot - they've always put marketing ahead of tech. Doesn't matter if people can't use the thing as long as they buy one.

Shug Maitland

I call your attention to http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-08/wiki-blueprint-would-let-anyone-3-d-print-gun-home
As more items become available for download in 3D printable formats, the demand will increase. Almost anything made of plastic and small enough to print will be downloadable. It is comparable to downloading software vs. buying the disk.

Hamlet Au

Maybe, but guns still require metal bullets with gunpowder. So if you have to go to the store to get them, why not also get the actual gun while you're there? Don't get me wrong, it's an impressive feat, I'm just not seeing how this can scale beyond the hobbyist.

sirhc DeSantis

The article almost had me after a quick scan showed - oh look, metal? Stainless steel? I need this! But - no. PLA is a great material in its way, don't get me wrong we played with it as an experimant whan i worked in the toy biz, but not what I need :)
Ah well, back to the soldering iron ..

John Branch

Sure, we'll all be 3-D printing in our homes in a few years. And then we'll get Star-Trek-style replicators to synthesize our food, and transporters will take us where we want to go.

Probably the most overused word in Wired, and among other techno-utopians, is "will." As in "soon we will all be 3-D printing." I respect the magazine for other reasons, but we should remember this, a Yogi-Berra-ism: prediction is tough, especially about the future.

Jo Yardley

You ask; "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."

My answer; pretty much everything.
Here in Holland they have installed a 3d printer in the open air for people to give it a try, it is big enough TO PRINT A ROOM.
It can print furniture, (working) tools like wrenches, pretty much anything.
People are also experimenting with printing food!

This is going to be huge, bigger then huge.

What did you buy last?
Chances are that in the near future you can simply download and print it.
Sure this is all in a very early stage, but I've seen experiments and prototypes that are promising a lot.

Someone asked that if we can print guns at home but still have to buy bullets at a shop, why not buy both there.
But the main point there is that the gun shop can save a lot of space and money and risk because they can stop buying guns.
They can sell the blueprints to guns via a website and stop having to stock them.
Also no gunshop in the world can stock ALL the guns available, via 3d printing you can get blueprints for guns that aren't even in production anymore.
Want a 18th century reproduction rifle?
Print it, order the ammo.

But more peaceful and commercial; want to buy shoes?
No need to visit a shoe store with a limited supply, no need to try on dozens before you find one you like, no need to put your feet into a shoe 40 other people have tried one, no disappointment when they don't have your size.
For the store; no need to rent a huge storeroom for all the boxes of shoes.
You select a shoe from the internet, any design from any decade in history, want shoes that look like 1930s oxfords?
Upload a scan of your foot, edit, cut, paste and soon you will be printing an exact replica of a 1930s oxford shoe (except probably not made in real leather) that will fit your foot like a glove, like it was handmade just for you.

Need a working tool?
Wrench, hammer, screwdriver?
Print it.
Some of these printers can print these tools, make them very very strong without even using metal.

Arcadia Codesmith

If I could print up a pair of glasses for $5-$10, I would have racks of them in my home. If I could print shoes and boots custom-fit to my feet, my closets would look like Imelda Marcos' secret stash. And if I could print clothes that I designed, even if they were all synthetic... I'd need a bigger house. And probably a maid/archivist.

I don't think the tech is quite ready for prime-time, but I do believe it will get there soon, and so will the "killer apps". I think it's got a perfect market niche with people whose specific tastes and needs are ill-suited to a one-size-fits-all mass market, which is to say, most everybody.

Ajax Manatiso

It will turn "they don't make a replacement parts for that anymore" into "coming right up". Not seeing a practical use for this item reminds me of people in the 90's who couldn't see why anyone would ever want a PC for their home. It will truly change the world -- remember the day you first say it.

Adeon Writer

Based on your chart a few weeks ago, 3D printing takes the crown of bring at the absolute top of the Hype cycle. Give it time, we all have to become jaded and disinterested before it will be awesome.


I once was part of a discussion with the strategy department at a former employer. They said we, being a major telco, did not need to focus on wireless internet in the future, especially not on mobile devices, since there would be not anyone interested in have such features on mobile devices ever....that was in 2005 in Europe. The rest is history.

For revolutionary technologies like 3D printing it will take more time though. The best is to look back at the first development of Television and even the pc and telephone, add the component cost for physical distribution, and some people predict somewhere around 2025-2030 a true commercial impact from 3D printing will be there, but it is difficult to predict, specially since there is a lot of research still needed for groundbreaking possibilities. But it will come because it can be done, step by step...

I agree being skeptical that with the set up of current home 3D printing it seems that the impact will be within 10 years. Industry and investors do want us to believe that, but I do support the initial outlook of 2030-2050 for lift off this in every part of business. It might first be possible in ICT, industrial, biomedical and any mix from those three. You will need those small "home successes" though to gain money for further development I guess.

I see more problems at the legal site (think of when napster rose to the occasion). And there is also a link with virtual worlds, where people, when volumes and value will rise within, will enter more copyright issues to be defended by its legal representatives. That will be even bigger when people start copying physical objects, but even then legal advisers will find a solution for that, when they get paid for their hours enough..., but it will be a thread for designer labels etc. at first.

Feel free to comment.

Metacam Oh

Unless 7 billion people on the planet use it, it won't be considered "big" right Hamlet?

Tracy Redangel

I agree somewhat, I don't see 3-D printing changing the world. But it certainly will make a huge impact on niche industries and hobbyists and artists. For toy and hobby geeks like myself this is pretty exciting.

shockwave yareach

Back in 82, there was this other newfangled machine selling for 2000$. They called it the personal computer, or PC. Oh, the wild ideas they had for those things back when. They said you could create something called a spreadsheet, and if you changed one piece of data on it then all the others would recalculate automatically for you. Then there was something about typing on the computer so you could correct typos. They even said computers would allow people to communicate better, allowing folks who never saw each other to write back and forth at great speed and even include links to reference materials as needed.

Utter hogwash of course...

foneco zuzu

For lawyers it will be for sure!

Hamlet Au

"Back in 82, there was this other newfangled machine selling for 2000$. They called it the personal computer, or PC. Oh, the wild ideas they had for those things back when."

Even back then, however, there were people at PARC XEROX and elsewhere who had pretty clear, specific visions of how personal computers would be transformative, and those turned out to be true. By contrast, 3D printing's biggest advocates keep insisting this is going to be big, but then get very vague about the specifics -- or notably, talk about examples that aren't even possible with the existing technology. (I think several examples above fit in that category.)


that's Chris "Push media/ Long Tail" Anderson of Wired..right? Yep, thought so.

Arcadia Codesmith

"talk about examples that aren't even possible with the existing technology"

Just like those adorable eggheads at PARC were doing back in the day. The best part of the road is the part your tires haven't hit yet.


I should have also mentioned Wired are not the only ones writing glossy articles on 3d printing. I did too for Flush magazine a few months ago :) http://issuu.com/flushthefashion/docs/issue3/107


This is certainly early adopter stuff but it has a serious future. Printing of replacement parts, gifts,toys, tools and one offs. But thats the things that are already being mass produced by existing methods. Injection mouldings , vacuum forming etc etc. But there will also be new manufacturing techniques BASED on this technology that cannot be done easily with current methods. But don't take my word for it. Check out this article on the BBC. Disney have a handle on it.

Dartagan Shepherd

"Even back then, however, there were people at PARC XEROX and elsewhere who had pretty clear, specific visions of how personal computers would be transformative, and those turned out to be true. By contrast, 3D printing's biggest advocates keep insisting this is going to be big, but then get very vague about the specifics"

Except that Xerox's Parc IS exploring 3D printing and is very specific.


Alex Delderfield (ADEdge)

Im sure someone said the same about 2D printing once.
"Sure, I might print out a nice picture or two occasionally, but it will never have any other serious application(s)."



Try this: http://www.contourcrafting.org/

Not niche printing in the house but compelling reasons to print the house.

Latoya Smith

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