Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
The future of 3D printing

Predicting the future of technology tends is full of pitfalls. Thomas Watson, president of IBM predicted in 1943 that there was a world market for maybe 5 computers, today I own more than that (counting all mobile computers). And there have been other foolish predictions about people not needing television, or home computers. So armed with this list the proponents of 3D printing say that their product will have the same future as computers: Maybe a bit clunky and not terribly useful right now, but the next industrial revolution in the making. At the risk of looking foolish in 70 years, I disagree. 3D printing is not comparable to computing in future usefulness for humanity.

To see where I am coming from, one has to look at what computers do, and what 3D printers do. Computers process and display information. That is a huge field, because "information" is a huge field. In the end a computer allows me to communicate with people all over the world, watch movies, play games, design, model, simulate, archive, look up, and many more things. A 3D printer on the other hand can only be used to create an object. Even if in the future the complexity and the quality of the printed objects increases, physical objects are by their very nature more limited in variety than information.

Creating an object today seems like something fabulous, because it isn't something we as individuals do very often in modern life. But that is an illusion: In reality humanity has always been busy creating objects, and has become exceedingly good at it. The two basic principles we used to become so efficient at making objects are also the reason why the creation has become so much less visible: Division of labor and mass production. We don't create objects as individuals any more because we organized ourselves in a way that those who are best at creating any given object will create it for us. And we don't make those objects one by one, because it is far more efficient to make a great number of them and distribute them.

We never lost the ability to create things. You can still today start knitting a pullover, or carve a piece of wood into a toy. But division of labor means that somebody else is probably much better than we are at making pullovers or toys. And mass production means that this other person can not only make that pullover or toy better, he can also make it a lot cheaper. So instead of creating the objects we need for our daily lives, it is more efficient for us to work the job that we are specialized in, and use the money earned to buy the objects that the people specialized in their creation made. Yes, that bought pullover or toy will be less individualized than one we made ourselves. But as there are so many mass produced pullovers and toys on the market, we have sufficient choice without going for perfect individualization.

A 3D printer doesn't change these economic principles. No technological improvement can make the individual 3D printing of an object cheaper and more efficient than the mass production of the same object. Most of the object in your daily life are things that other people can use too, and so mass production is not going to go away. Having said that, mass production fails in some areas of technology, because in some special cases an object does have to be unique. And in those cases 3D printing does have a future. From making of prototypes to individual medical or dental protheses to anything "art & craft", 3 printers have a bright future. I fully expect in a few years to own a 3D printer, because the cost will have come down enough for it to have become useful enough to have one in the house. I just don't expect more than a fraction of a percent of the objects I use every day to be coming from a 3D printer. Useful technology, yes; industrial revolution of the future, no.


I strongly disagree. Mass production has two serious disadvantages:
- distribution costs: you must pay the trucker who moves it from the factory to the store and you must pay the store itself. The company I work for gets about 1/3 of the price you pay in a supermarket for our product. Several of our products aren't even listed in supermarkets because we wouldn't get enough money for it.
- distribution time: if you want an item now, you need to go to the store, buy it and go home. Assuming it's available in a store near you. You might need to commute further or set an order and come back tomorrow / wait for the delivery guy.

3D printing has only production costs an as soon as the item is ready, it's yours.

Finally there is an area where mass production failed hard: homebuilding. I believe future homes will be 3D printed by huge, crane-like machines that are installed above the site, fed with concrete and they print any shaped home for you in a week. While furniture will likely not be "printed", it can still be locally water-cut from sheets and assembled by a robot to fit exactly to your home.
I am anxiously waiting the day Gevlon will agree with Tobold, at least once in his blogging lifetime.
For once I mostly agree with Gevlon ; true that on prices, a mass produced item will always be cheaper as Tibold said. But there's more potential than he think for 3d printers. Gevlon examples follow the steps of games dematerialization (quick) + art / specialization. What did people thought about games / music / movies dematerialization in the past?
While I don't see 3d printers every becoming as numerous as computers I do see them eventually entering he mass market.
Two things can turn a 3D printer from a niche/hobby item to a mass market item. Cost and ease of use.

Imagine a 3D printer that cost a couple hundred bucks and worked like say a smartphone. It comes with a screen where you can jump online and download templates and at the push of a button it prints whatever is there with nothing extra needing to be done on the part of the user. Hell you can even take the AppStore idea and charge $1.99 or whatever for different templates that way template makers produce thousands of templates for the thing.

Something like that comes out and boom I bet we get 3D printers in a lot more homes.

Now as far as commercial use goes I definitely feel like we are going to see more and more uses for 3D printers. The sky is the limit there.
But stuff made by 3D printers will be grotty plastic things. Industrially produced stuff will be better.
A 3D printer is the highest tier of an Amazon Prime. You pay the up front fee and in return get free 5 minute delivery to any address [*some items excluded].
If you imagine the replicators from Star Trek as the evolution of 3D printing (similar to a smart phone being the evolution of ENIAC), it becomes viable that there is one in every house.
Well, either printers get cheaper and better than mass-produced, or the cost of mass produced goes so far up that it's economically viable. Honestly, if all wages were EU/union level then I suspect 3d printing for many mass produced items would be competitive.
Well, I can't imagine anything I'd need on a daily or even regular basis that could be produced by a 3d printer. So why own one?

Food I need daily, sell me a Star Trek Replicator already ;)
@ Tobold

That page says "Not Found Error 404"
@Rugus: Try this fixed link
What about clothes? They're starting to make them from 3d printers now. So far the offerings aren't impressive, but this is just starting. Shoes are also being made.

For a family, this could be big. Trying to keep my son clothed and with decent shoes when he hit a growth spurt took some doing. With this, just input his new measurements and good to go. Imagine shoes made to fit your feet, not to arbitrary sizes (my left foot is almost half a size larger than my right). Need another blanket? Print it out!

Expensive for what utility it provides? Enter the neighborhood 3d clothes printer store! Remotely input the clothes data file you came up with, the retailer's system tells you the price, you select 'pay' and go to pick it up.

Natural fabrics feel better to me, and would become more of a status symbol than they already are, but once the 3d printing clothes become 'good enough', well, my everyday clothes would change. The Industrial Revolution got going with textiles, clothes for the common man dropped dramatically in price and rocketed up in availability. No longer was the smock standard wear for the poor man or woman. The Age of Abundance could start with perfectly tailored clothes for pennies.
And yet clothes are one thing that we could *already* make at home...
And clothes were made at home from the beginning. People made thread, wove it into cloth and made clothes with it. It took an incredible amount of time and effort.

But since we could *already* make clothes at home, why did textile factories take off? Well, with the spinning jenny, power loom and then sewing machine, making cloth and then clothes became a trivial exercise in comparison - 5% or less of the time needed for the same article of clothing.

Now, clothes are made in the sweatshops of Asia and shipped around the world. Well-tailored suits are expensive not for the suit, but for the tailoring to adjust that suit for the wearer. With 3d printing, that tailoring cost goes away. The transportation costs and wastage of the sweatshops goes away.

But you still need the raw material. Right now the plastic filament for a 3D printer is sold for around $20 per kg, which is about a factor 10 to the actual cost of the PLA material. Printer ink is consistently listed as one of the most expensive liquids on earth. Why do you think that one day you would get raw material for a 3D printer so cheap that you can produce clothing cheaper than a sweatshop?

There are knitting machines already that eliminate the time and effort of making clothes at home. Very few people use them.
3D printed objects always look extremely rough and ugly, like ultra-chap toys. Is there a way to make that plastic look better? Can the plastic be smoothed/worked in some way or does it always look like that? It's ok for prototypes but for "finished products" I can't see any future.
Mass production will always trump 3D printers. Always.

The sole exception is prototypes. If you're in a creative field and need to make prototypes, then the 3D printer is as part of your repertoire as the workbench and the lathe.
My apologies, I thought this was about the future. Silly me. Oh, I don't suppose anyone posting here has refilled their own inkjet cartridges?

I will note that a neighbor that repairs cars in his garage for a living has a 3d printer. He uses it to make replacement plastic parts like sunshade holders. Often those parts cost $10 or more for a few grams of plastic. He told me that if he was doing body work, he'd seriously consider getting a larger printer for panels and such.
Industrial revolution? No.

But it gives the individual craftsmen power to create cost effective bespoke pieces. As much as people love to be unique, I could see local craftsmen and artists using the technology to revitalize the small craftsman and the reemergence of unique local physical cultures.
"But you still need the raw material. Right now the plastic filament for a 3D printer is sold for around $20 per kg, which is about a factor 10 to the actual cost of the PLA material. Printer ink is consistently listed as one of the most expensive liquids on earth. Why do you think that one day you would get raw material for a 3D printer so cheap that you can produce clothing cheaper than a sweatshop?"

Key word here being "Right now". Also printer ink is expensive only because the companies keep the prices high. This doesn't stop people from refilling cartridges for 30% of the cost in their local shops.

"There are knitting machines already that eliminate the time and effort of making clothes at home. Very few people use them."

Because fashion and brands are a thing. Why would I attempt to make a hideous sweater for a fraction of the cost, when it is something that would get me laughed at? Assuming printing technology gets more refines and actual brands get behind it (i.e. Toyota homes being 3d printed in the future) then it could get enough traction to become popular and affordable.
@ Tithian

Honestly... 3D printed stuff looks ugly as fu*k. I mean yes, it works for a temporary model/prototype but that's it.

With our current tech, I agree. All this is a 'what if' future scenario (maybe even decades down the line).
3D printing (really, additive manufacturing) also has the advantage of being able to make certain objects that cannot be made in other ways, at least with the same performance attributes. This is why, for example, SpaceX makes some rocket components (including the Superdraco thrust chambers) by 3d printing with metal powders.
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