This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Feb. 29, Future Tense will host an event on the Make movement and do-it-yourself innovation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.
Anyone who’s run across one of the many recent news articles extolling the wonders of 3-D printing could be forgiven for thinking that mankind’s golden future is finally at hand. This marvelous technology will, if you believe the headlines, transform education, end child labor, and spur a manufacturing revolution. “A second industrial revolution is under way,” the New Scientist proclaimed in a special report on 3-D printing. The usually restrained Economist agreed, declaring, “It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”
Given that the first Industrial Revolution helped increase the world’s population six-fold and more than double the average life expectancy, that’s a pretty bold claim. Meanwhile, some curmudgeons have stepped out from the (traditionally crafted) woodwork to explain “why 3-D printing will go the way of virtual reality.” Betting that a newfangled technology will never catch on is, of course, a recipe for embarrassment. In fact, 3-D printers are already changing the world—just not the kind of 3-D printers that sit in your living room.
Part of the confusion over 3-D printing’s real potential might arise from the widespread misuse of that ambiguous phrase, “everything from X to Y.” In a typical example, London’s Evening Standard reports that home 3-D printers can churn out “everything from a new necklace to a replacement car part.” Here on Slate, Abundance authors Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler tell us industrial designers can use them to produce “everything from lampshades and eyeglasses to custom-fitted prosthetic limbs.” Necklaces, car parts, lampshades, and prosthetic limbs are all things that 3-D printers can make. But that’s hardly “everything.” Such expansive claims tend to obscure the important distinction between 3-D printers intended for home use and those geared toward specific, high-end industrial applications. And they give rise to questions like this one from a puzzled colleague who heard I was working on a piece about 3-D printing: “So is it true that you, like, touch a button and a bike pops out?”
Sure—so long as you don’t mind your bikes made entirely of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. That’s the only substance you can use in the leading desktop 3-D printer, the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. Others intended for home use rely on similar types of plastics. (Industrial 3-D printers, in contrast, can handle a wider array of materials—more on those below.) These substances share a number of virtues, including being relatively cheap, widely available, flexible, and durable. They’re great for making custom mobile-phone holders and sad Keanu Reeves dolls. But most useful items require more than one material. Even a rudimentary bike needs rubber for the tires, foam and vinyl for the seat, a lightweight metal for the frame. Home 3-D printers can’t do that today. Nor can they do anything with organic-based substances like cotton, wood, or food. Someday they might, but even then it’s not clear whether they’d be able to approach the quality and cost-efficiency of mass-producing bikes or T-shirts. Wide-eyed futurists foresee product shipping—nay, consumerism—rendered obsolete, because you’ll be able to make anything in your living room. All you need is a 3-D printer! Well, that and all the raw materials in the world, from silk for scarves to rare-earth metals for electronic gadgets. And you thought keeping your 2-D Deskjet stocked with ink cartridges was a pain.
However, 3-D printing truly will transform certain industries. But there remains a big gap between its industrial applications and its home applications. In the home, it’s something like a Lego or K’Nex set for the 21st century: wondrously stimulating for kids and DIY enthusiasts, but with limited practical applications. It could evolve into something more—something essential—or it could remain a snazzy but unnecessary toy, the iPad of the 3-D realm.
In the hands of professionals, 3-D printing has already become essential in many contexts. Its first great success was in rapid prototyping, where it gave product designers the ability to quickly mock up plastic models without having to order them from a machine shop. Now, using new technologies such as selective laser sintering, industrial 3-D printers can also build final products using a wide array of materials, from glass to metal, in a process called additive manufacturing. These types of highly specialized printers compete not with consumer outlets like Wal-Mart, but with processes such as injection molding, which has dominated the precision manufacturing world for decades.
3-D printing has several advantages over traditional techniques. Injection molding, which requires toolmakers to build metal molds into which heated plastic can be cast, tends to be cost-efficient only for large-scale production runs of a single part or object. In contrast, the marginal cost of 3-D printing is roughly the same whether you build one or 1 million. This allows for near-infinite customizability, which is why the eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs invoked by Diamandis and Kotler make good examples of its uses. Parts for Formula 1 cars or Boeing Dreamliners, of which only a few dozen may be produced in a year, are also good candidates for 3-D printing.
That the same machine can produce virtually any shape also makes spur-of-the-moment manufacturing workable in places it has never been before: in space, for instance, or in the back of a military Humvee. Why try to stock every little space station part that might break when you can bring one 3-D printer?
It’s not surprising that there should be such a dichotomy between the uses of industrial 3-D printers and the home models: The same was true of computers for decades. In many ways, the progression of 3-D printing from giant warehouses to living rooms has happened faster than anyone had a right to expect. 2-D printing was the exclusive province of industrial presses and foundries for centuries. Computers were refrigerator-size beasts for decades before the Commodore PET and the Apple II. And yet 3-D printers have gone from lab to living room in less than 20 years—and at prices that are already coming within reach of the upper-middle class. (The Thing-o-Matic will set you back $1,099; Fab@Home printers start at about $2,000.)
The technology’s evolution is likely to continue rapidly, thanks in large part to the open-source mentality embodied in the Thingiverse, a community of DIY-ers who make their designs available for free download. When everyone can see and improve on everyone else’s work, progress flows faster and easier than it does in cloistered corporate labs.
Still, the error that some futurists make is to assume that progress in 3-D printing will follow something similar to Moore’s Law: the principle of exponential growth that was first applied to the number of transistors that could fit on an integrated circuit. That seems not to hold in the world of physical things of a more substantial size. Bespoke Innovation’s Scott Summit, one of the leading 3-D printing evangelists, says he has no doubt the technology has the potential to change the world—“It will scale crazily in a lot of directions people don’t expect,” he predicted—but it won’t change everything about the world. It’s a point of frustration among industry insiders that the public expects 3-D printers to perform like Star Trek’s replicators: All you have to do is say, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”
On Star Trek, though, replicators weren’t perfected until the 24th century. By then, it’s a safe bet we’ll be using 3-D printers to create things far more interesting than tea or a bike.