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The truth about the 3D printing revolution

Home OfficeFeatures
by Ryan Whitwam, 22 Aug 2012Features

No one can deny that 3D printing is really cool from a purely technological standpoint. The idea that physical objects can be rapidly fabricated from digital files is fascinating, and has all sorts of fun and indeed world-changing implications. However, it’s very possible that we’ve all got so caught up in the 3D printing hype that our collective hopes have been unduly raised. 3D printing is going to spur a legitimate manufacturing revolution; just not in your garage.

It is true that the technology is rapidly coming down in price. These days, you can get a MakerBot for about £1,500. In the next few years this kind of consumer 3D printer could come down to a few hundred pounds if you buy smart on Black Friday. Just because something is affordable, though, doesn’t mean people actually have a use for it.

The overwhelming majority of homes don’t need a 3D printer, and that’s not really going to change. Most of us barely even use our 2D printers anymore! If you look at the kinds of objects being printed with these low-cost 3D printers you will see art projects, semi-professional design work, and knickknacks. Printing an MP3 player shaped like a cassette tape might be neat (I think so), but it’s not an example of practical at-home use.

In the next few years, I suspect we’re going to see disillusionment with the idea of owning a 3D printer. The machinery will be cheaper and more capable, perhaps integrating a larger array of materials, but most people still won’t have a real use for them. If you don’t want one now, you probably won’t want one in a few years.

There’s always the hope that 3D printing will provide a way to fabricate replacement parts when something breaks or wears out. That function might even be useful to you occasionally, but how often? A few times a year? It’s probably not worth keeping a 3D printer in the house for those rare occasions. We live in a world where the things we buy are increasingly becoming non-repairable; just look at how much harder car and computer repairs have become. You won’t be able to fix as many things in the future, but 3D printing might have a role in making those non-repairable items in the first place.

The way this technology changes everything isn’t in your garage, but in local manufacturing. When 3D printing hits the point that complicated items can be easily created, that’s how it’s going to be used in industry. Yes, this technology will trickle down to the future equivalent of the MakerBot, but it won’t ever be as good as what you can get if you head down to your local professional 3D printer or hardware store.

Don’t feel too down – 3D printing isn’t going anywhere as the insane levels of hype die down. You’ll be able to buy them and print increasingly neat stuff as time goes on. However, at-home 3D printing will remain the domain of enthusiasts. Most people will be perfectly happy to buy items that were printed elsewhere with higher quality machinery than they themselves have the desire or inclination to run.

Cheaper high quality products will make it to stores thanks to 3D printing, and you will probably be able to get custom items printed for a pittance. We don’t need to treat 3D printers like personal Star Trek replicators for the technology to change the world.

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