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3D printing won’t be domesticated any time soon (but then again how it might)

The internet has a standing order from me to send me any news stories it has about 3D printing, and I am beginning to get a feel for how this story is playing out. (Maybe, what do I know?, etc.)

My first guess was that 3D printers are something like laser printers, which would accordingly soon enter all our homes, but I now think that’s wrong. 3D printing is not an enhancement of domesticity, or not yet. It is already, and has been for quite a few years, a technological development technique, and it is now morphing into a manufacturing technique, which is what most of the news stories are about. Here’s this new thing they are making with 3D printing! Wow!

But it’s “they” who are doing this. Only a minority of people reading or hearing these stories now want to get their hands on this kit themselves. If there is a parallel with personal computing, then 3D printing is still at the stage when mad techno-hippies were buying the first cheap (-ish) computers to play with in their dad’s garages, and learning how to program them, circa 1977(?). The only – although it was one hell of an “only” – killer app there was for those first small computers in those early days was if you wanted to learn how a computer worked.

Consider the following news story, from the Daily Mail. It seems that someone somewhere has worked out how to “print” a new kind of bikini, out of 3D nylon. Many may be excited by this story, such as women seeking nicer bikinis, and men needing a techno-excuse for drooling over the female bodies involved in advertising the bikinis, but while there may be a small stampede to the bikini shop to buy such new garments, this story will surely not cause any stampede to techno-stores to buy bikini-printers.

I wrote everything else in this posting before reading this piece by Ryan Whitwam, but he says pretty much what I say here. The problem with 3D printing, from the domestication point of view, is that it does too much, with too many materials, in too many different ways. If there already existed a 3D printer which could “print” everything of a certain size – and I mean everything (jewellery, small batteries, personalised contact lenses, artificial fingernails, soup nodules, sweeties, fake sugar pills, medicinal drugs (of all kinds), diet enhancement pills (ditto), picture storage cards for phone-cameras (perhaps with the pictures already on them), and so on and so on – then it might make sense to have such a magic machine in one’s home. But, unless I have been severely misunderstanding this technology, we are not anywhere near to all that yet, and if we ever do get there, then each person will probably only use his 3D printer for one or two apps, that he is familiar with and expert in producing, the way I use my computer to do only those things that I think I know how to do, like blog in the way that I blog, buy CDs off of Amazon, etc.. I don’t use my computer to forecast the North Atlantic weather or to calculate Pi to three million decimal places, even though, in a sense, I could. I don’t even use my computer to access the work of others in such realms, other than when I consult weather forecasts for London.

The people who want actively to do 3D printing, now, are the people who already make stuff of a particular sort, and want to make better stuff of that particular sort, or people who want to get a start in stuff-making. 3D printing is not putting manufacturers out of business; it is putting them into new businesses. (It may, in particular, be putting a whole generation of First World manufacturers back into business. Discuss.)

A monochrome laser printer, on the other hand, does just the one thing. It takes the same black gunk every time, and shoves it, in two dimensions, onto paper, not “bog standard” paper but you know what I mean. Regular paper type paper. It doesn’t also print wallpaper, or bedsheets, or pancakes, or handkerchiefs or kaftans. It just shoves messages onto paper. Black on white. We almost all want that, and that’s why we almost all now have that.

Even something as simple as colour printing is now a service offered by lots of shops, for lots of people who only occasionally want it.

Here is a final possible insight. It occurs to me that I do already possess something a lot like a 3D printing machine, namely the big blundering oaf of a gadget that I use to “print” ice cubes:


Okay they aren’t cubes, they’re like big stubby thimbles, but in a crude way this is a lot like 3D printing. I insert a nice simple, cheap raw material: water. I crank up the power, and a few minutes later, alerted by satisfying rattling noises, I get big stubby ice thimbles, in three dimensions. Invaluable during the recent hot-and-sweaty spell that the weather forecasters so correctly saw coming. Invaluable when you are entertaining. And invaluable given that fridges make too little ice that you mostly don’t need and which fill the entire fridge with the wrong kind of ice, but then, when you really need ice, can’t keep pace with demand.

Also, ice is hard to buy and hard to store, especially during hot weather (which is of course when you want it). What you want, when you want ice, is a gadget that cranks it out fast, and then stops when you stop it. You want an ice making machine. In your kitchen.

Ice cubes are not like contact lenses or finger nails. When you want them, you want a lot of them. This is, I surmise, why food printing figures in so many of the 3D printing stories I read. Food is something that regular people might soon want to “print”, in their homes, in large quantities, again and again.

The reason I mention my 3D ice printer is that this is, already, a killer app. It does one vital thing, really (apart from being so ridiculously big) well.

And because it does just one thing really well, it is easy to operate. When I crank it up, I do not have to answer a lot of silly questions about what I want it to do. (Do I want contact lenses? No. Do I want fingernails? No. Do I want contraceptive pills? No. Do I want some ear-rings? No, I want effing ice thimbles, you effing moron machine. What’s that you say? How cold do I want the ice thimbles? I want them cold enough but not too cold! You should know that.)

What I am saying is, maybe, that if “3D printing” does soon enter the home, it will be in the form of “better ice thimble machines” (e.g. making ice something elses of your choice) rather than in the form of all-purpose, generic 3D printers that try to do everything, but do it all (but actually nothing like all) very badly and expensively.

It does occur to me, though, that maybe finger nails are quite like ice cubes, if you are a teenage girl. Presumably there are 3D printers for these already.

I included my toaster in the picture of my ice thimble printer not just to show how big the ice thimble printer is, but because a toaster is also (stretching the definition still further) a specialised 3D printer, sort of, is it not? (Toast with pictures of Jesus on it, anyone?) Does it tell us something that both the (sort of) 3D printers that I already possess involve making things that are either very cold or very hot and which lose their value unless they stay that way? (Yes, because that makes the things they print out a lot harder to buy in a shop.)

I could continue rambling, but will now stop and let others ramble instead.

31 comments to 3D printing won’t be domesticated any time soon (but then again how it might)

  • Surellin

    I of course am in the minority in many things, and my reason for wanting a 3D printer is no doubt very much a minority view also. But, honestly, the first thing I thought of was “Wow, I could make my own replacement chess pieces”. See, I play (or used to play) chess very seriously, and under cirumstances of traveling, going to the club and such pieces get lost. Always. They also get chipped. And thrown across the room by cross opponents. The notion of a plastic-forming 3D printer with the files for the various pieces is intoxicating. Oh, sure, simply buying new sets would be cheaper, I suppose…

  • Shirley Knott

    The personal computer didn’t take off until there was a useful application. The arrival of Visicalc, the first spreadsheet, showed the world that the computer could do useful work, that is, reduce the cost/effort of accomplishing things that were wanted to be done.
    We’re still waiting to see what that might be for 3D printing.
    What’s the ‘killer app’ that allows people, especially small business owners, to do something that wants/needs to be done, but does it better/faster/cheaper?
    I, for one, expect to be taken by surprise 😉

  • I don’t think anyone pushing the idea believes that there will be legions of new designers making their own things and printing them out. (Maybe a few idealists, but not many.) I think it will be more like video. Sure, nearly everyone has a way to take high quality video and they could edit it themselves into feature films, but most people don’t. They use the computer as a way to consume videos that other people have put together.

    I see 3D printers the same way. People aren’t going to be making their own designs. They are going to be consuming the designs of other people. There needs to be a standard format that is easy to print (a sort of PDF for 3D printers) and a way to share them (a 3D pirate bay — maybe even the Pirate Bay) and it will take off.

    “Cool iPhone case! Did you print that? Can you email me the file?”

  • Petronius

    You may change your tune about home 3D printing when you read about making your own firearms at home.

  • Shirley Knott

    I agree that it’s unlikely that we would see an explosion of ‘home(-based) designers’. The market will be for ready made designs.
    But designs for what? I still don’t see a game-changer.
    Firearms are sufficiently niche of a market to be a micro-niche. By themselves, they’re unlikely to be a driver of new technology comparable to what we saw with the PC.
    For that to happen, something has to appear that warrants the having of a 3D printer and the required raw materials ready at hand in the home.
    Invest in a 3D printer and raw materials to produce a single gun/firearm? That’s awfully damn expensive — who (and how many) are going to find that cost justified?
    Visicalc and its offspring provided that push for the personal computer, and changed the world. The cost of entry was initially high, but damn near a one-time expense (i.e., no tangible raw materials, unlike 3D printing).
    What will do that for 3D printing? It’s very very hard to predict, i.e., nothing immediately occurs to anyone who’s talking about it…

  • Alisa

    Petronius: there recently was a long and detailed discussion here on the prospect of 3D firearms printing.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    3Dprinting would be good for exact copies of the Mona Lisa, if you wanted an exact copy. And small stuff like pins and needles, once they can print in metals.

  • MakajazMonkee

    There is a big misconception on this topic for non-engineers. I think people look at things like the maker bot or reprap and think that’s the future.
    These are just toys.

    In reality you really want to look at stuff like the EOS systems.

    There’s already a killer app (lots actually).

    You have a shop selling spare parts for cars you can keep all the components in stock or have an SLS system and SLM system and print them off as customers require them.

    Actually If you drive a Mercedes made after 2010 about 15 of the components were printed.

  • bloke in spain

    I’d say, like I said in the comments to the Wikiweapon, you can’t realise the potential of 3D printing unless you turn your design philosophy 180 degrees. It’s not what can also be made by 3D printing. It’s what can only be made by 3D printing.
    Give an example;
    Any 3D printable design is infinitely scaleable. That’s almost impossible to do with any other manufacturing technique, bar skilled hand crafting. Oh, and another one. Biological reproduction. So you should be able to exactly match a component to a body part. Obvious first use is dental prosthesis. but what else could benefit from a very exact fit? Shoe insoles? Chair seats?

  • Alisa

    I like your thinking, bloke.

  • bloke in spain

    Ailsa, for better or worse, it’s how I think. Start with the available materials here, the desired result over there. Connect the two with the most appropriate technique to as close a solution as needed. For instance, in most cases, there’s only a couple of parameters have to be exact. The rest can vary between not so critical to irrelevant. So why waste effort producing an exact design, then trying to force its realisation when most of it’s superfluous. I’d rather let much of it be determined by the limits of the materials/techniques themselves.

  • Alisa

    Can anyone explain the connection(s) between 3D printing and nanotechnology?

  • bloke in spain

    Well, a Drexel style nanoassembler would, in essence, be a 3D printer. It’s assembling structures by the placement of individual atoms. Depends really if you want to apply the adjective to the printer or the product. Or the materials.
    Materials? One of the things came out of the wikiweapon exercise, for me, was the realisation you could print explosives by printing alternating layers of a plastic & an oxidizer, providing the layers are thin enough.

  • Alisa

    Wow. Just Wow.

  • Alisa

    Smited for Wowing…:-)

  • Alisa

    Thanks, Brian:-)

  • llamas

    Oh, nonsense. Squared.

    Use a 3D printer to make pins and needles? I hope this was Smith-riffing sarcasm.

    3D printing is not ‘infinitely scalable’, or at least not in any embodiment current or contemplated. There’s a physical limit to the density of layers that can be put down by fusion methods. Approaches that contemplate assembling things at the sub-crystalline or molecular levels will be machines of a character entirely different than the 3D printers you see today – manipulations at that level cannot be mechanical. Just as there are physical limits to an optical microscope, so there are physical limits to mechanical manipulations.

    You use a 3D printer to make things within a certain size, material and accuracy envelope that you can’t get without some other major expenditure, either of time or money. By definition, this means new or unique things, or things that are used in such small quantities that other means of getting them are not practical. It makes no sense to use this technology to make something which already exists in anything but the most unique usage. That goes for pins, and it goes for firearms too. Nobody keeps a pin-making machine in their house on the off-chance that they mighty need a few pins – not when you can buy them 1000 for a dollar. In the same way, nobody keeps a make-anything machine in their home on the off-chance that they might need to make – something.

    The ventriloquist Jeff Dunham uses a Stratasys 3D printer to make and replicate his dummies. That’s a perfect meme for their use – to make something completely unique, and maybe a very few copies that would be completely impractical to make any other way. But Mattel does not use a 3D printer to make Barbie dolls – a near-perfect analogy to Dunham’s dummies, the only thing different is the volume.

    For almost-anything else, a 3D printer is like a concrete mixer. They’re both amazingly-useful, and when you need one, nothing else will do – but you don’t buy them – you rent them.

    Lots of people who are vapouring about the amazing future of 3D printing technology don’t actually understand it at all. The ‘3D printed gun’ is a perfect example. The liberal-arts graduates who pollute the media heard the words ‘3D printed gun’ and they fabricated the rest of the story out of whole cloth, because they don’t understand the technology, and they certainly don’t want anyone to explain it to them – and spoil the screamer headline. It’s just like the ‘plastic handgun’ stories of 20 years ago – I always wanted to pistol-whip a journalist with a Glock and then ask him ‘There. Feel like plastic to you?.’

    I’m a mechanical engineer. I have 30+ years of experience in the field. I am as inventive as they come. I use 3D printers every single day. I use them to make things that even surprise me, sometimes. And you can take my word for it – most of the pipe-dreaming that’s printed about them is just that – pipe-dreaming.



  • Sam Duncan

    There needs to be a standard format that is easy to print (a sort of PDF for 3D printers) and a way to share them

    There is.

    Of course, MakajazMonkee has a point: Makerbot and RepRap are little more than toys. But then, the people using PDP-11s could have said the same thing about the Altair back in the ’70s. I’m certain this technology will make its way into the home, but it’s far from ready yet, and there’ll always be the limitation (I don’t necessarily see it as a problem) that you can only make things out of one material.

  • I think that long before 3d printers appear in homes they will be on street corners, perhaps in the ever-diversifying newsagents as highlighted on your personal blog.
    The whole point of a 3d printer is it’s versatility (even when restricted to a specific material). Such machines would be far better utilised (and more cost effective) on a for-hire basis.
    I have however thought of a potential application that interests me: I am a forklift dealer by day, and operate independently from any manufacturer, meaning I am called upon to maintain a wide variety of different forklifts. The main bugbear of my life is obtaining parts; at best I can get parts by next day delivery from either a manufacturers’ stock or from the now global near monopoly 3rd party parts supplier in Belgium. Often the next day (or later) isn’t quick enough for my customers, who tend to be small operations with one forklift that is absolutely essential to them. I can’t carry a stock of all the parts I might need due to the variety of forklifts I am called upon to repair.
    So, if 3d printing gets to the stage where it can economically produce metal parts of reasonable strength cheaply and quickly, I would be likely to have parts produced locally by 3d printing at the time they are required, for one of my engineers to pick up and fit immediately. I’m not talking about heavy-duty load bearing parts, they tend to be quite generic and available within 25 miles at a moment’s notice. I’m talking about things like thermostat housings, handbrake levers and other moderately strong, physically complex parts too specialised to forklifts to be available from a car parts supplier (which are numerous, well stocked and local).
    When 3d printing does that, I’ll be a happy man.

  • bloke in spain

    Sorry, Llamas, what I meant by infinitely scaleable, in this sense would be in the same sense that a 2D printer can scale an image from the lower limit where too few pixels fail to define the image up to the maximum size the printer can handle. And in the same way, change the relationship between the axises, except again there’s three to work in rather than two. What can be done with that? Damned if I know but Photoshop & CAD have given birth to the CGI industry, film SFX, computer games etc.
    OK, similar stuff can be achieved with CNC machines etc but only in a limited, expensive way

    A quote from a favourite SF author I’ve always liked:

    “You know what your trouble is?” he says when we’re under the bridge, headed up to Fourth. “You’re the kind who always reads the handbook. Anything people build, any kind of technology, it’s going to have some specific purpose. It’s for doing something that somebody already understands. But if it’s new technology, it’ll open areas nobody’s ever thought of before. You read the manual, man, and you won’t play around with it, not the same way. And you get all funny when somebody else uses it to do something you never thought of. William Gibson – The Winter Market

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I agree that the applications of 3D printing have been overblown, but I can still think of a lot of things the ability to make things out of ABS plastic that are bigger than a penny but smaller than a football would come in very handy for.

    Combined with a 3D scanner I can think of quite a few applications. Replacement parts for, well, anything that uses plastic parts. New bath plug. Fully functional silencer for a .22 – I doubt plastic would be strong enough for a bigger cartridge but it would definitely work for a .22. Of course it could also be used to create moulds with which to cast things from metal as well.

    If I were the government it would be things like the latter 2 I would be worrying about. These are the areas where 3D printers would make it possible to procure things you’re not supposed to have.

  • Here’s your killer app, ending planned obsolescence as we know it. I recall a blender from many years back. It worked fine until a plastic gear stripped. I took the blender apart, identified the defective part, called the manufacturer and was told that the gear, which had perhaps a dime’s worth of plastic, was only sold for $25 and a new blender of the same model could be had for $29.

    A 3D printed part might be more expensive to make, perhaps $1 instead of $0.10, but I would have gotten my blender working again that day and for far less than I ended up spending. Printing parts, especially weak parts that are designed to go easily and early is a good sweet spot for the current state of the art in 3D printers.

  • Dale Amon

    I suspect the earliest home units will have a standard feedstack (white plastic precursor) and an app that looks like a catalog. Pick the picture of the thing you want, answer how many you need and hit PRINT.

    Of course there would be the option for experts to use autocad or whatever produces the definition file to make their own things, but they would all be white plastic objects. There are a lot of those in your life.

  • David Bouvier

    I would say home-scale 3D printing is current analogous to the home dot-matrix printer. Remeber them?

    It took 20+ years for the golfball to be replaced by big expensive lasers, then cheap lasers, then expensive colour lases, then cheap colour lasers.

    There is still big differentiation

  • Russ

    Cost, cost, cost.

    I’m not a tech pioneer, but I *do* occasionally need things made that mass-manufacturing won’t provide, and which are cost-prohibitive to go the (otherwise economically-superior) dye/stamp route.

  • Dave Walker

    Nice ramble, Mr M – and I’ve enjoyed reading the comments so far, too (especially the point about built-in obsolescence) :-).

    Ultimately, 3D printing ends up with Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (admittedly, is in the same way that rocketry ends up in the kind of sci-fi Universe where space travel is commonplace, while remaining within the constraint of lightspeed). This may well be where the implicit connection between 3D printing and nanotech is coming from – as well as work on direct atomic manipulation by IBM and others.

    I admit I can’t see a need for having a 3D printer myself, yet; I may find one in future. However, I remember when the easiest way to get something photocopied or faxed involved going to a corner shop; I happened to need a flatbed scanner for something a couple of months back, and found that a combined scanner-printer-copier-fax was cheaper at Staples than a standalone scanner. This gives me an opinion that one of the factors which will drive the cost of 3D printing down, is if it becomes a procedural component in some other process, as well as being a process in its own right.

  • Dave Walker

    Thinking some more, there’s a reason to play off the matters of built-in obsolescence and printed parts for Mercedes (surprising post, that) against eachother – warranties and quality assurance.

    If I have a blender I bought ages ago which is out of warranty, making a new part to fix it is a win for me, and a little skin off the nose of the vendor for charging too much for spares. However, if I have a Mercedes, fitting a part other than an official Mercedes one could have unfortunate knock-on effects if it isn’t a perfect reproduction of a standard one (I wouldn’t expect a 3D printer to have an X-ray attachment to check for cracks in printed output anytime soon, for example).

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Of course, we’re talking about homes. If we broadened this to include shops, then you or I might visit our local Prada outlet, see a design we want, be scanned by a machine, and have our taylor-made Prada 3d-printed right there, by a mechanical taylor. Prada would keep the design-parameters within its own computers, and we would still enjoy the fun of shopping.

  • MakajazMonkee

    “I wouldn’t expect a 3D printer to have an X-ray attachment to check for cracks in printed output anytime soon, for example”

    I saw a rough draft of the ASTM standard for laser printed titanium a while back (actually engineers say additive manufacturing), so I think that will come out soon.

    If you cast or machine something you don’t X-ray every component for cracks etc. Once a process is running you have to assume you have repeatability.

    “There needs to be a standard format that is easy to print (a sort of PDF for 3D printers) and a way to share them”

    The ASTM has developed this its called the additive manufacturing file format, at the moment its .STL, but they say this will kick in soon


  • ThePresentOccupier

    I’m afraid I remain steadfast in my indifference to domestic 3d printing for the near future. RepRap, as has been pointed out, is a toy – yes, it can build some of the parts for another RepRap, but as far as producing genuinely useful products in and of itself, it can’t.

    I strongly believe that for at least the next 15 years at least, rapid prototyping will remain out of the home for all but the most dedicated of tinkerers (who are probably in engineering disciplines already). For the rest, occasional access to a commercial machine *may* be an option, but using the iPad as an example, the vast majority are more content to consume content than create it.

    There is an issue I’ve seen raised several times over the use of RP tech in the jewellery field – that of individuals who do not have a grasp on the basic function of jewellery (being wearable, for the most part) creating elaborate designs using wax mills which then result in unusable pieces; without a grasp on the fundamentals of design, this is going to happen wherever “making stuff” has the hard work taken out of it.