Thursday, June 18, 2009

More on 3D Printing

I really do love the concept of 3D printing, but I also have a problem with it. A 3D printer is a powerful tool which serves no purpose. The idea that this machine can print any basic shape (or even a circuitboard) is really cool, but people don't have much need for printing any basic shape or circuitboard.

There is a miscellany of things that they might want to print, sure. Coat hangers. An iphone case. Maybe a set of allen wrenches. But being able to print them in your basement is not of greater utility than being able to drive down to the hardware shop and buy them there, usually at roughly the same price as manufacturing it in your basement, and without the hassle of a complicated machine.

Now I think 3D printers are probably going to really take off, because my whining sounds an awful lot like people suspecting that nobody would ever want a computer in their home. I think that, following that curve, we can expect that all geeks will have a 3D printer in 20 years, and most everyone else in another 15 after that. But what will cause the 3D printer to become popular?

It won't be its ability to print itself. That's little more than a cute gimmick as long as we have the ability to buy parts on line. It won't be its ability to print random pieces of plastic, because it's pretty rare that someone wants a different-shaped plastic widget each day.

There's some kind of breakthrough application. I can think of a few things it might be. The ability to print wifi points, for example. Or the ability to print solar-thermal panels and pipes. But it'll still be a while before someone invents Visicalc for the 3D printer.

What's your opinion?

8 comments:

Christopher Weeks said...

Custom sex toys.

I've been following RepRap for a couple years and I keep thinking about getting involved. And then I realize that I already have a comb and some cups.

Olick said...

There are several things I think need to happen before a 3d printer can take off. Firstoff it has to be able to reasonably use a large amount of materials. Secondoff, someone has to find out that it is more profitable to use a 3d printer, rather than a manufacturing plant in a 3rd world country.

I'm thinking that sometime soon, someone will begin to offer a wide variety of custom-to-order objects. Decorations. Cups. Like the T-Shirt shops online, only for a wider band of objects.

At first they'll probably charge a premium for this service. They're making custom objects afterall. They have to purchase an expensive 3d printer. They have to have someone to use or make the data.

But... someone already DOES all of these things, its just in factories in another country. Data(the plans for an object) can be transferred for almost no cost (except the price you put on it.) The cost of running a 3D printer probably isn't more than the cost of running a factory. Designers and customizers are already paid for their services, and the advent of more advance designing and customizing software will ease the cost of employing one, possibly to the point that an only slightly-trained person (no more training than someone needs to operate Word or Excel properly) might be able to operate it. Shipping costs would be down since you have to ship the materials just once, rather than to a manufacturing plant, then to any other locations for assembly, THEN to the distribution centers.

Once someone finds a way to make 3d printing cost less, in cash or man-hours at least, AND it works on an equal or higher level than current goods, the 3d printer will then take off.

Craig Perko said...

Wait, I swear I left a comment already. I'm not going to retype that whole thing.

In short, a 3D printer will NEVER be as efficient as a dedicated machine designed specifically to print... whatever...

I doubt it'll ever even be in the same magnitude, because as the printers advance, so will the dedicated machines.

The only reasons to want to use a 3D printer are:

1) You don't want to use the market, or can't because you're building restricted materials. This will get more common as we develop printers that can print chemicals.

2) You want a moderately large number of things that are highly customized.

Soyweiser said...

Damn, I would use it to make my own minatures for board games. Sadly the current printers just arn't good enough for that.

Craig Perko said...

That's what I thought, too, but it's kind of a niche thing. I don't think everyone's going to rush out to get one because they can print dolls and figurines, although it would be cool.

Gary said...

hi guys...

3d printer was never built for everyone's use. It was meant to help designers, inventors and engineers do their job. For example, before a design would be sent for mass production they need to see the actual design first. Thus a prototype would be needed. Before, it took them time to create the prototype, but now with the aid of 3d printer and 3d cad softwares, they will be able to do it easily. This easeness will shorten their time to have the items sent for production. The earlier the design is sent for mass production, the earlier the money comes in and the lesser the development cost...

so next time don't think it's meant for use in your house....

I hope this helps

Chris said...

3D printing designers, seeing and touching design prototype changes, dramatically reduces time to market. Companies that have switched from handmade 3d modelling to technology focused 3D prototypes have seen drastic reductions in cost and creation time from months to a couple weeks!

Craig Perko said...

That's not going to get a 3D printer into a home. You misunderstand the question.

Of course, I can understand that, since you didn't bother to read the article. I hate spam.