Tech bloggers have speculated over whether 3D printing is a game changer, the way of the future, or the key to Utopia. The popular view seems to be that it’s going to change the manufacturing industry, and that your world will be customizable and the consumer will never be the same. Right now, consumer 3D printing is at best a hobby like home brewing or quadrocoptors, but already there are predictions that the open source, consumer-minded 3D printers available — Solidoodle, Printrbot, Cubify, MakerBot, and several others — could be the tools for unprecedented innovation, and possibly a new consumer revolution.
But while 3D printing may be a consumer revolution, the consumer won’t know about it.
3D printers have been around for a while, but they’ve always been large, cumbersome, expensive, and restricted to professional manufacturing. However, companies like MakerBot recently began designing portable, cost-efficient 3D printers — some 3D printers are even capable of creating their own parts. Most 3D printers read an STL data file designed on Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software program like Maya, Blender, Solidworks, or Sketchup. The 3D printer software slices that data into two-dimensional representations. Those layers are “printed” individually, either by heating and bonding liquid plastic (MakerBot uses ABS, the plastic used for Legos, but is capable of bonding other polymers like PLA), or powder materials are injected from a tool head while a platform moves on an X and Y-axis carriage, layering each slice into the full physical object.
These domestic 3D printers are capable of printing several things, but at this point, they tend to produce desk toys and paper holders, miniature sculptures, pens, phone cases, robot figurines, lamp shades, plastic shoes, Lego bricks, chess pieces, lens caps, tweezers, bath plugs, banks, and other trinkets that look like they’d come packaged with a Happy Meal. Not the sort of stuff that beckons a revolution.
Still, 3D printing proponents tend to idealize domestic 3D printing because they assume that there’s a popular desire for customization in all printable objects. That’s an overestimation. While people may like to change the color of the stripes on their Nikes, they’re still buying Nikes and not building their own shoes. The average consumer isn’t going to spend several hours learning a CAD program to tweak a ballpoint pen grip. Even if the 3D printing software becomes simple enough to adjust in a few minutes, I’m willing to bet that the average American consumer is going to keep buying Bic or Papermate supplies whenever they pass them hanging in an Office Depot. Consumers just are not going to think about buying a $1,000 3D printer and then spending the half an hour it takes to print when they need something like a pen.
Hobbyists, on the other hand, will devote an hour out of their day to customize a lampshade or pair of tweezers. But not all consumers are hobbyists. If it’s convenient, some dedicated consumers might wait a few minutes for a new bath plug to print, but these days, most consumers buy sporadically. They might get out of the house to buy. Maybe less so these days, but they certainly prefer branding to self-sufficiency. 3D printing is an innovative tool for a creativity that was once inaccessible, but creativity is difficult. Learning is difficult. And 3D software is not easy to learn. The new world may be customizable, but the demand to tweak a design in the household market will likely be outweighed by a desire to conform to an aesthetic, or just by pure convenience.
The other problem facing the widespread adoption of the domestic 3D printer is the assumption of corporate generosity, or what it’ll take for consumers to simply print out repair or replacement parts for other household items or gadgets, potentially cutting down on costly repairs. This argument was attractive when I first heard Lisa Harouni’s TED talk on 3D printing. “Imagine you have, say, a Hoover in your home and it has broken down,” Harouni says. “You need a spare part, but you realize that Hoover has been discontinued. Can you imagine going online, this is a reality, and finding that spare part from a database of geometries of that discontinued product and downloading that information, that data, and having the product made for you at home, ready to use, on your demand?”
That sounds great, but Hoover would rather you buy a whole new Hoover. If this is 3D printing reality, Hoover is going to find a way to make a profit.
In fact, this is already happening ó 3D printing hobbyists have already run into copyright law. Wired reported that Games Workshop, a UK-based company that makes the fantasy battle game Warhammer, cited the Digital Millennium Copyright Act when issuing a takedown notice to the 3D-object schematics library Thingiverse for user-made schematics to Warhammer-style figurines. Corporations have protected their intellectual property in all other industries, and 3D printing will be no exception.
This isn’t a call to downplay the innovation of 3D printers, but rather the enthusiasm for a potential 3D printer in every home. Dynamic, intricate, fast medical applications, and cost- and time-efficient prototyping — these are inspiring. What’s not inspiring is thousands of disposable trinkets littering the home office. Hobbyists are great. After all, hobbyists have catalyzed a better beer brewing industry, and if the same effect can occur in 3D printing, then good. But pushing 3D printers into the home won’t be as effective as getting them into the hands of students and educators. If 3D printing wants to spark the next industrial revolution, it’ll have to start with people willing to learn its software and utilize its services for something other than Lego bricks and phone cases. Engineering students, hobbyists, and startups should have a field day.