Tobold's Blog
Sunday, April 16, 2017
The future of 3D printing is niche

I have some limited access to a filament 3D-printer of the kind too expensive to buy for home use. But my local electronics super-store has a €800 3D-printer which even includes a laser-scan turn-table which allows you to "copy" things in 3D. Sounds brilliant, but I have enough experience with the technology now to be aware of the disadvantages as well.

For example some weeks ago the hinges on the filter-holder of my coffee machine broke. What if I could scan the thing a print a replacement? Or maybe replace the broken battery cover on an alarm clock or other small plastic items like that? The reality of things is that this simply doesn't work. Not only is the object that you print the wrong color and the surface isn't smooth; it also is completely the wrong material: Poly lactic acid (PLA) isn't great at withstanding heat, so I wouldn't use it in a coffee machine. And the material is a lot stiffer than the polyethylene or polypropylene that most plastic items in your household are made of, so the closing mechanism that requires a bit of flexibility wouldn't work and frequently break. At least PLA is one of the least toxic plastics, so you won't poison your coffee with it, unlike with some other options. In the end the best option was to google the type of my coffee machine and buy a replacement part online.

So a 3D home printer is mostly good for decorative items. But as the layers are very visible and usually the item is just mono-color, the items aren't really all that decorative. What it works reasonably well for is printing little plastic figurines for my role-playing games, especially low polygon models. So if I need a bunch of those, should I buy a 3D printer?

One issue here is cost. You can get a lot of Reaper Bones miniatures for €800, and that is just the price of the printer. The material for 3D printing is generally overpriced (that is at least 10 times the market value of the plastic used), and some companies started to make the materials even more expensive by putting the filament in a cartridge without which the printer won't work. On the other hand a plastic miniature is only between 2 g and 5 g at 25 mm scale, which means a spool of filament will last you quite a long time.

My main obstacle to buying a 3D printer is size: The model with the laser scanner is basically a cube with a side length of 60 cm. Meaning it has the size of a small washing machine (except for the height) rather than the size of a printer. However I could go for a smaller size printer which is about a 40 cm cube, and has WiFi connection, so it doesn't need to be close to the computer. And that one is less than €500. Smaller printer means smaller maximum size of the object printed, but even for the smaller model the print volume is 15 x 15 x 15 cm. So right now I haven't really made a decision, but I'm still toying with the idea.


It's the same as with all technological step-changes: come back ten to twenty years after the media hype to find out if was overactive imagination or the true future.

I'd say if an innovation hasn't become a norm within a couple of decades it probably isn't going to although some concepts seem to hang on a lot longer than that. I was watching items on t.v. technology shows in the 1960s about flying cars and that story re-appears at least once a decade. I saw the latest version in a serious newspaper only a month ago.

If I had to bet on 3D printing becoming as ubiquitous as the personal computer or the mobile phone, though, I'd bet against it.
Even on when they were showing off their 3D printed tools on the International Space Station, I was never convinced. Sure, they made a spanner - a giant toddler toy-size plastic spanner made of of plastic that will crumble at any recalcitrant nut. Any not you could tighten with it, you could probably tighten well enough by hand.
(And I bet if you 3D-printed a nut, it wouldn't tighten at all.)
Have you priced using a third party service to do the actual printing? I have noticed that quite a few have sprung up recently mainly online but a few actual bricks and mortar shops as well. I am sure they charge a hefty markup compared to doing it yourself but if you only want limited quantities it spares you the capital cost. Plus you probably get access to a better quality printer than you might use at home.

That aside I think you are absolutely correct that 3-D printing is a niche application and is likely to remain so. Even in the industrial world I think it is really only useful as a rapid prototyping tool.
I bet it's having a big impact with professional artists, though. This is the kind of thing you purchase because it has value to your business, or value to your hobby, and the cost makes it worthwhile. Yes, you could buy a lot of minis for the price in question....but if you planned to sell minis you could produce and sell a lot more than the cost of the machine.
Only if the minis it makes are of saleable quality.
A friend of mine got into craft beers and bought a little home brewing kit for 1700€. It's pretty much hit and miss if the result tastes even remotely good and you really don't want to start calculating liter prices.

If you have fun printing, smoothing and painting little decorative items buy a 3d printer. You will have unique items, and as a hobby it isn't that expensive. If you'd use it for anything mass production can do better don't buy one.
I'm not sure I know of any vision of the future that doesn't include 3D printing on some scale. Your recent experience only shows that it is overhyped and not nearly as good as people want it to be right now. But they will get better, include more materials, and get cheaper. I'm sure many people, maybe even most, won't have one in their home for a long time, but that just gives more importance to a local 3D print shop that has a really good one you can use.

Your title is perfectly reasonable as long as you mean "the near future of 3D printing is niche," that's something I can agree with. But if you mean "3D printing will never catch on," I think that's as crazy as trying out the Internet in 1990 and deciding it will never be big.
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