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The accidental 3D printing cynic

The folks at Proto Labs saw a comment piece I ran in our DEVELOP3D publication on why I felt that some realism was need amongst all the hyperbole and misinformation about the rise of the 3D printing revolution – and they liked it. They liked it so much in fact, that they asked me to write a short guest blog post on what the background was to the piece and why I felt inspired to write it. So here I am!

Before becoming a writer and editor, I spent years as a product designer, specialising in plastic part design and mould development. Part of that involved the development of new products and testing manufacturing form. And as with many designers, I came across the nascent world of rapid prototyping. Nifty stuff that. Send them an STL file, wait a few days (or in some cases, weeks), and back comes a prototype. Built in layers in various ways, it prints in 3D. Hence the name. Clever eh?

Look up the word prototype in a dictionary (or at least Google it). It means the first of something. Typically, the prototype is the first time a product was physically realised. As designers we’ve always created models, either by hand, with an X-acto blade and a block of foam, with a CNC machine or a stereolithography machine. Then came a change. No, wait. Three changes.

Triple Threat

The first was that manufacturers decided to experiment with using the various rapid prototyping systems to try making end use stuff. We’re resourceful types, designers and engineers. And it worked and worked a treat, but it’s just another manufacturing process. Just like injection moulding, just like machining, just like wire EDM. The process, the material and the function and form of the part as well as unit requirements all intermingle to almost self-select the right process.

The second change was big and the catalyst was when the historically patent enforcement heavy brigade in the rapid prototyping industry started to lose one of their key assets - patents. With both SLA and FDM being over 30 years old, the patents expired.

Around the same time the third change happened. A small team in Bath in the UK started to develop the RepRap project. This was an open source redevelopment of the same core technology at the heart of the FDM machine – plastic filament, extruded in layers to build up a 3D form. Everything was done in the open, all documented and available to anyone. One might imagine the lawyers went ballistic.

That was 8 years ago. Today, we have a wealth of 3D printing machines, all dramatically lower cost, starting at a couple of hundred bucks and working upwards. MakerBot brought it to the masses with a mix of a slick and affordable machine, an attitude of “we’re the little guys and we rock” but many have jumped on the movement. Not a day goes by without a new 3D printer hitting KickStarter. Makers. It’s a new word apparently. Or something.

So am I cynical?

I have a 3D printer on my desk. It’s printing something now. And it’s glorious. As a tinkerer by nature, the ability to print something I’m working directly, wait a few hours for it to finish and it’s there is an incredible boost to the ideation process. And frankly, I like freaking my salty old naval engineer of a Dad out when he comes around to visit (the reality is, he’s there to steal my spanners, so any distraction is welcome).

But I’ve also got a training and background in design and manufacturing. I know that what this little machine is doing is building a simulacrum, a rough approximation. It’s not an exact replica of a production intent part. The ABS is sketchy, the layers… well, they delaminate on occasion.

I would never confuse this with being able to create production intent parts required at a volume. I would never even consider swapping this production method out with something that will give me a homogeneous part. If I can model something up, it’s done with the full knowledge of the limitations of the machine, the material and the build process. And quite often it works.

Unfortunately, we’re now seeing that first wave of over hype of 3D printing as the unaware confuse what these machines can do with dramatically more costly machines that build in metals using powdered aluminium and titanium. Why? Because they don’t get the basics.

They’re predicting that there’s a shift coming in manufacturing, that there’s an industrial revolution coming. There might be. I’m no fortune teller. But I can’t see it. This is another tool, to do a specific job, where suitable. Just like machining, just like injection moulding, just like forging. Given the right requirements in terms of functionality, of material performance, unit volume and customisation requirements, yes, we could see mass market products be 3D printed – but we sure as hell aren’t going to be doing it in the home.

But that’s said with one caveat. In 10 years’ time, if I’m proved wrong, I’ll be a happy bunny. I’ll have my raw atomic level material fed into the house and I’ll be printing my tea and biscuits. I just hope it speeds up. I’m not waiting 6 hours to watch a chocolate digestive materialise before my eyes. That would just be painful. And the tea would be cold.

Al Dean, Editor in Chief, DEVELOP3D Magazine


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Reader Comments (2)

From my own experience, the 3DPrinting hype reminds me most of the Second Life Virtual World hype of a few years ago. Remember when some analysts said we would all have a virtual avatar by 2011 and every company was buying up real-estate in Second Life? Eight years later, the technology is in nearly the same place is was back then (just without the hype).

But let’s say I picked the wrong analogy, Al you become a happy bunny, and 3D Printing does grow to a multibillion dollar industry in 10 years. What would be the things that actually made it happen?

Firstly, I’d say that FDM is not the technology to base the revolution on. It is cool and easy to do at a low cost but people are coming at the additive manufacturing problem from many other directions. Nine pin dot matrix printers were replace with 24 pin dot matrix printers but what came after that was not 48 pins. It was laser and inkjet. One of the other technologies will have to take off.

Secondly, I’d say the idea that the 3D printer is at your home is not a requirement. If I need a part in metal, I’ll send it over to Home Depot (B&Q for you?) and get it printed on their device. This is just like I send my photos today to the drug store to get printed. Does anyone print there photos at home anymore?

Oh, you will still have the makers and hobbyist and small shops that have their own machines but I don’t think the “super growth” would come from them. Maintaining a 3D printer is a pain and I don’t see this suddenly disappearing. Most people aren’t even thinking about this yet. (Deelip, sorry if your new Cube addresses this. I haven’t got to play with one yet).

The third thing I’d say needs to happen is for someone to find some actual use for consumer level 3D printing beyond making cute desktop ornaments. There are early adopters and there are laggards. The laggards got microwave ovens, computers, digital cameras and cell phones because it became harder to live without them. Consumer level 3D printing needs to have this draw.

Of course, manufacturing has some actual uses for 3D printing which you pointed out. I expect that to continue to grow. I’m optimistic about the technologies and their uses there. But most of the hype is around the consumer level and there is still a lot that needs to happen to justify a fraction of that buzz.

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Burhop

I respectfully disagree with the conclusion of the article, well on certain points at least. I do agree that the quality of consumer type 3D printers is not suitable for any sort of end product and that this 'future' of people printing out whatever part they need at home is, at least for now, a pipe dream. I do think however that the consumer printers are opening up the possibility for people with good ideas to work out their designs and get things to market without having the capital that was required even 10 years ago. They can experiment with their design, printing several iterations with improvements along the way, and when they are happy, can approach a company like Proto Labs to realize small production runs of higher quality parts than they could produce themselves. I think a more important development are the cnc mill/routers and laser cutters, with tools like that people can actually produce professional results albeit at a micro scale. In my mind, one of the solutions to this countries economic woes is allowing more people to start small scale enterprises, and to be responsible for their own prosperity. Tools like these are a step in that direction. It still takes people who know what they are doing, and are adept enough to seek out the right solutions to make it all work, but the accessibility of 3D printing and cnc fabrication are opening doors to people with good ideas but little capital. I think that's a good thing.

July 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan McCauley

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