3D Printers: All of the Hype Hasn’t Panned Out

June 9, 2016

7:00 pm

Printing your own dishes, lamps, and furniture. That was the “hype” when 3D printers were first introduced back in 2012. This new technology had obvious implications for manufacturing and medicine, and that has actually panned out somewhat. Printing medical devices and certain car parts, for example, is becoming more common, as design engineers develop “blueprints” for these things and use high-end printers to create them. But the hype for home use has largely “flopped.”

A Toy Rather Than a Useful Device

Probably the biggest reason for the failure of 3D printing to catch on is that consumers have looked upon the technology as a cool device that could be used for fun. This past Christmas, for example, toy catalogues featured a simple 3D printer that kids could use to print models of the Eiffel Tower, the Capitol building or the White House, etc. and order additional blueprints for other models. These models are made of a durable plastic, which is the most common material available for home printing.

To be sure, there have been many 3D printers under Christmas trees for kids and adults alike, but very few owners have taken the device as a serious tool for supplying themselves with useful products. Why? Because consumers who want products will purchase them from stores, order them online, or, in the case of a product that can be printed, order from an online 3D printer service.

Is there a Future for Home 3D Printers?

Probably yes. But it will take time, and there are some hurdles to overcome.

  1. The prices for a high quality 3D printer will have to come down. This is beginning to happen, and there are some informative reviews of consumer-grade printers that speak to features and prices.
  2. The printing process itself is not easy. There is a learning curve right now, and there are definite skills involved. Most consumers do not want to learn design software, and resources for buying the designs are just not that common.
  3. Current consumer models are very limited in size, in the types of materials that can be used, in colors, and in the surface finishes. To put it simply – consumers are not going to be printing lovely patterned dishes on printers that are currently available in their prices ranges.

Right now, the consumer market for 3D printing is coming in the form of using online printing services that will print items as ordered. Thus, people can avoid the hassle and the mistakes of trying to print something at home, wasting time, money, and materials. Plus, these services offer a wider variety of materials than the typical plastic of a home device.

A More Promising Future in Manufacturing

Manufacturing is probably the most promising use for 3D printing in the short term. Commercially-designed printers allow the use of a number of different materials at the same time, and many companies are now employing design engineers to develop the software necessary to print components and parts.

There are still hurdles to surmount in manufacturing too. Complex pieces, an iPhone for example, are still far beyond what the current 3D printing technology can offer. Currently, major uses are in the areas of prototyping, but actual manufacturing still utilizes traditional methods. Printing a thousand simple objects, one at a time, moreover, is probably less efficient than mass producing them in an assembly-line environment.

Nothing Remains Static

As the technology moves forward, however, there is every reason to believe that 3D printing will one day become the preferred method of manufacturing everything from cars to appliances to consumer gadgets. At that point, it may be more feasible for households to invest in their own printers. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

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Dianna is a former ESL teacher and World Teach volunteer, currently living in France. She's slightly addicted to apps and viral media trends and helps different companies with product localization and content strategies. You can tweet her at @dilabrien

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