Co.Design

A 3-D Printer For Every Home! (Yeah, Right)

The term “3-D printing” is tossed around by geeks as if it’s going to be a ubiquitous, domestic technology of the future. That’s just silly.

There are a few Holy Grails on the Internet--things that thou shalt not touch because the Internet is still pretty much run by geeks. You can’t criticize the hilarity and hive mind intelligence of memes, even when they’re, you know, really stupid. You can’t discuss the potential reasoning behind DRM, even when, to be a little fair, the web is a fantasy land of copyright infringement.

But maybe, more than any of these, thou shalt not question the obvious, inevitable future of 3-D printing. Because as we all know, one day, there will be a 3-D printer in every home, and when you need a new watch, pair of shoes or perfectly mapped sculpture of your inner ear canal, presto!, just print it!

Well, I have bad news that will probably make a lot of intelligent people whom I respect very much shake their heads in disgust. 3-D printing is not “bigger than the Internet” or even as big as the Internet. 3-D printing is not the next home revolution. And that doesn’t mean I hate technology or democracy, it just means that idealism can’t always trump practicality.

While 3-D printing will excite hobbyists and disrupt many industries--and in fact, already has--its consumer application has been vastly exaggerated in ways that a lower cost and higher printing resolution won’t solve.

For One, We Just Don’t Need That Much Crap

I want you to look around your office, house or apartment and ask yourself a question: Do you really need more things? Because that’s ultimately the promise of an at-home 3-D printer for the average consumer. You can produce any crap you can imagine, on command. Download friends’ crap. Upload your own crap. Plastic rings! Laminate bowls! Some-assembly-required bookcases that make Ikea look like heirloom furniture!

3-D printing doesn’t just come with per-use financial costs. It comes with a whole other “where am I going to put this thing” burden. 3-D printing might fail, not because it can’t quickly and easily create more crap, but specifically because it destroys the illusion that we need that much crap.

Industrial Manufacturing Is Always Less Expensive And Higher Quality

“Where am I going to put this thing,” of course, might sound fine when you’re dealing in gemstones and marble busts. But the items you’ll be able to print at home, on a consumer device, will never rival what can be made at the industrial scale.

Because we aren’t talking about Amish-carved artisanal goods. This is mass production made smaller. When a regional manufacturer is printing toothbrushes on a $100,000 machine and you’re printing yours on a $100 machine, which of you is going to produce the better toothbrush? No doubt, one might argue that good old 2-D inkjet printing can be fairly indistinguishable from a professional job, so maybe 3-D printers could get so good that we couldn’t tell the difference. Even if that’s the case--and due to the complexity of materials in physical objects, I don’t believe it is--there’s a reason why people still get their photos printed at Walmart: Walmart will print them cheaper. It’s basic economics. Scale reduces cost, and the individual user will never have scale.

We’re Talking Ideals Vs Products

At the core of 3-D printing, I suspect that there is some deeper, even tacit belief: Just as the Internet made the world’s information available with a button press, so too can 3-D printing distribute the world’s objects to everyone. So a 3-D printer, even if not used all that often, is indispensable as a piece of democracy in action. It’s knowledge and freedom and empowerment in your hands.

Given that 3-D printers are already producing intimidating weaponry, there’s certainly some promise to its power as political disruptor. But 3-D printers have serious limitations to the have-nots in that they can only manipulate a few raw materials--and you always need those raw materials for printing. In other words, we can’t print a cheeseburger without first putting in the ground beef, lettuce, and tomato, just like we can’t print a syringe of vaccination without a big vat of refrigerated vaccines. And you know what? We never, ever will, because that’s the work of arranging matter at an atomic scale. That’s the Star Trek replicator, not the 3-D printer.

3-D printing represents a universal ideal, but that doesn’t make it the right product to ultimately empower that ideal. And iteration alone--printing in different colors of plastic, or sure, even durable metals--won’t change that.

3-D Printing Will Change The World, But Not Inside Our Homes

The 3-D printer is not the next microwave, but it very well may be the next food dehydrator. It’s got incredible potential as that tempting gadget that you see on late night TV, use intensely for a week and then sell a decade later at a garage sale. For the average consumer--not the engineering-obsessed maker hobbyist--the best case scenario is that your 3-D printer is that old HP deskjet that we never use. Or it manifests as a hit, Easy-Bake-Oven-style toy for kids.

And that’s okay, my fellow geeks. Because for designers who already use 3-D printing to rapidly prototype the gadgets of tomorrow, or mass manufacturers who can use 3-D printing to diversify their scope, drive competition, and better customize products locally for consumers, 3-D printing really has and will change the world in a way that can absolutely trickle down to the rest of us. We simply don’t need to personally own this particular technology for it to change our lives.

[ILLUSTRATION: Paper via Shutterstock]

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30 Comments

  • AssHat900

    We will see them in the back of Walmart before every home.  No need for long supply chains, replace stock as needed.

  • Wolf Schweitzer

    The popular Trautman hook has been replicated using that type of
    technology. I think that for small niche applications that suffer from
    hypes and not much really useful to buy for the money, 3D printing will
    be a real life saver. See for example openprosthetics.org/concepts/5...

  • Wolf Schweitzer

    3D printing at home is likely a new ground breaking technology. From missing tools (such as kitchen tools, bike tire levers, ..) to rare overpriced underfunctional special needs items (prosthetic arm / hand parts) I am quite confident we will see quite interesting developments. After all, you probably posted this here as part of a "parasitic strategy" so, really, it was posted in order for us to tell you what 3D printing at home really will be used for, not because you actually believe that personal ownership of 3D printers was in any way a problem. 

  • Wolf Schweitzer

      The popular Trautman hook has been replicated using that type of
    technology. I think that for small niche applications that suffer from
    hypes and not much really useful to buy for the money, 3D printing will
    be a real life saver. See for example http://openprosthetics.org/con...

  • Wolf Schweitzer

     The popular Trautman hook has been replicated using that type of technology. I think that for small niche applications that suffer from hypes and not much really useful to buy for the money, 3D printing will be a real life saver. See for example http://openprosthetics.org/con...

  • papaw

    In a lot of cases 3D printing is already cheaper than ordering parts or things: most parts can be made for 25 cents to a dollar because all you need are cheap thermoplastics. I'm not saying it'll be super handy for the regular joe the next 10 years. Furthermore, since 3D printed parts will be recyclable the stacks of crap won't be such a problem and parts will cost next to nothing if you recycle them.

  • Nah

    You have a very naive vision I've heard from "creative tech" writer in quite sometime. It's about what technology will become, not what it currently is. 

  • Meridith

    We don't NEED to own a cell phone or laptop either - but we do. I do see 3-D printers going mainstream in the next couple decades. I'll save your article to show my grandkids. (Probably great grandkids by then.)  I think you missed the mark in your dismal pessimistic article (kidding :) because you are defining the future of the 3-D printer by what it does now - not what it will have the capability to do with continued innovation, investment, marketing and recognized profit-potential during its evolution. 

  • Gabriel Prero

    This is all very true, and I will add one to this list; to use a 3D printer, one needs to generate the data for it. In other words, one needs to know CAD software to create their own items to print. True creation doesn't lie in what's already out there, it's in making your own stuff (would you buy a printer only to print content created by others? Not likely.) For instance, I use Solidworks for CAD. It costs $4,000 and took me a few months working with it daily to be fluidly proficient where I could consistently create 3D printable files. Yes, 3D printers have changed the world for designers like myself, and has transformed our process. For my friend who is an accountant and doesn't even know what an Isometric view is, a $200 3D printer is useless.

  • actuasia

     Neal Stephenson's novel : The Diamond Age, gives a good insght of the impact that 3D nano-printers would have on the society.

    In some way, you're right there's some Libertarian dream at work behind the 3D-Print-everything movement.

  • plish

    Great article!  I too believe we need to rein it in a little.  Before things can be printed they need to be designed.  This is no small issue. 

    And while the press gets excited about 3D printing, they virtually ignore (hmm...interesting pun...) Arduino.  In many ways, this is more powerful than 3D printing as it has a lower cost of entry, a large support community and it leverages technologies of all kinds as needed. http://wp.me/pkQcg-WI

    My second point is that 3D printing is still being used to make what can be made by other means.  3D printing will really take off only when it's used in ways that play to its inherent technological strengths and constraints. http://wp.me/pkQcg-Yb

    Please share your thoughts on 3D printing's strengths by tweeting the hashtag #3Dstrengths . 

    Thanks and let's keep creating!

     

  • Gene Tomilko

    Yes and no!! When I was building a robotic project with my son we were needed pair of gears which would fit the motor we had and be to the size. I quickly draw that thing and send to few machine shops plastic making companies around. Quote comes back at $250  to $ 475. Yes, if you need few thousands of them it drops to few cents a pop. But we only needed two!!! Printer to the rescue!!  And now our home-made robot Zu-Zu is happily running around the house. It has quite a few printed parts in it )))  And now when my son brakes some small parts in his Lego set - there is no more crying... We just print another one....

  • sacha k. chabros

    I'm so glad I'm the designer-geek-hobbyist-prototyper type; we have the coolest tools.  And mine won't end up in a garage sale until a better one comes out.

  • Gadriscoll

    I think you're significantly minimizing the impact of convenience to print out your own repair parts for household objects like that little rubber gasket between the hose n bib or that Button I just snapped off my favorite shirt.
    It will also significantly reduce the need to buy that manufacturer 3 pack when I only need 1!  Seriously dislike that because then I have two pieces of crap to get rid of instead of just printing the 1 that I needed plus the time and energy I saved traveling back and forth to the Mega-mart to get the widget I needed.

  • Lukas

    I'd like to see more 3D-Printable products which are useful... and it's still pretty hard to make your own models even if you got some blender experience.

  • Garo Ungaro

    to me, its just another designers tool to enhance better the concepts and ideas into a 3D realities...

  • www.digitalcampfirespress.com

    3D printers are missing at least one important option...a 3D scanner.  Sort of an all-in-one printer like the paper based multi-tasking, wireless, scanner/printer/copier/fax machine now sitting next to my computer.  Then I can replicate my smaller junk or recreate missing parts for my larger junk.   Most folks will not take the time to learn 3D imaging software, nor be satisfied with only downloading other people's 3D junk files. But, I still crave getting one of the the latest 3D printers, anyway!

  • TheMandarin

    Interesting but there are still times when the economics favor 3d printing, like ordering a part. Sometimes the economies of scale havent been worked out for spare parts and getting the CAD and printing it at a local shop with an objet would be cheaper than ordering something and getting it shipped.