The Romanticization of 3D Printing

When I first discovered 3D printing, I was fascinated by the technology’s seeming limitlessness. After witnessing Grace Choi 3D printing makeup, I truly believed that I could turn my garage into a mini factory and turn a fat profit. My plans of frolicking in my millions were shattered when the realities of 3D printing kicked in. Turns out high fixed costs coupled with an uneducated market do not create conditions for a scaleable business.

The timing is not right (now)

3D printing now is what the computer was in 1960: a big, fat, inefficient machine. It is not replacing industrial manufacturing any time soon. Right now, the technology is best used for prototyping and one-off jobs. Some industries have been more receptive than others to additive manufacturing, such as aerospace and biotechnology. Jeremy Rifkin says when “the cost of producing an additional good or service is nearly zero, that would be the optimum level of productivity”. 3D Printing is no where near this inflection point.

3D Printing: Pick Any Two

It is too expensive

Although 3D printing has made significant gains in the past few years, with the average price falling from $10,000 in 2009 to $100 in 2015 for consumer-grade printers, printing as a process is still not cheap. Filament costs are also high. 3D printing cannot compete with the economies of scale of mass production. Don’t expect to make high quality prints with a limited budget and absolutely no experience in the field. You get what you pay for.

It is too slow

3D printing is not a fast process. Printing speed depends on several factors, including the complexity of your design (more here). This does not include the learning curve of familiarizing yourself with AutoCAD software and setting up the 3D printer itself. Many times, printers must be assembled in IKEA-like fashion. This may be difficult for someone who is not tech-savvy.

The quality is not great

When I visited a local MakerLab, I saw firsthand that commercial 3D printers have, for lack of a better word, shitty quality. Many times, the layer-by-layer additive process requires sanding and rendering. The finish depends on the quality of the material: the smoother the finish, the higher the price.

Parting Thoughts

The future of 3D printing is still unclear in terms of mass market reception. Although the timing, price and quality may not be ideal right now, I believe there are lots of untapped opportunities.

What do you think?