3D printing: Don't believe all the hype

3D printing: Don't believe all the hype

Summary: The technology is interesting, but the novelty will eventually wear off.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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3d printing revolution or hype
Credit: Stratasys

Despite excitement over the technology and dreams of printing off our own clothes and utensils, if 3D printing is fated to become revolutionary, this will take place in the factory, not the home.

While 3D printing is arguably one of the hottest new categories in the technology industry -- following mobility and competing with connected cars and wearable technology, the nuts and bolts of 3D printing have been around for decades. However, key patents, restricted materials and the high price of printers has kept the technology firmly within manufacturing for years. 

The majority of key patents surrounding additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, have either expired or come close to expiry, which gives the industry the push required to advance. According to Bits to Atoms founder & Shapeways 3D printing designer Duann Scott, patents filed that detail the laser sintering manufacturing process used in 3D printing -- which allow items to be sold on as finished products -- have now expired, which could give rise to a host of new, innovative ways to use laser sintering and spur the technology onwards. 

Read this

Unusual and odd uses for 3D printing

Unusual and odd uses for 3D printing

Now that 3D printing has gone beyond the world of manufacturing, we're seeing a number of interesting and, frankly, odd uses of the technology.

However, while new patents will be filed as the industry evolves in the same manner as mobile technology, lawsuits will happen unless licensing agreements come in to play. Patent squabbles are part-and-parcel of the modern-day technology realm, and they are likely to crop up given the potential of the industry -- and this will eventually hamper progress. As big names become involved, this may also prevent smaller players from growing and competing if they cannot afford high licensing costs to use intellectual property.

Despite a number of crowdfunding projects dedicated to the creation of cheap, at the moment, household 3D printers, their range, price and materials are limited. If a business wants to use 3D printing within its supply chain -- whether to create products more cheaply or to manufacture individual components -- unless they have thousands of dollars to spare to purchase their own kit, they are required to outsource to specialized companies.

A number of tech players are looking at how 3D printing can apply to their business models. General Electric is using 3D printing to produce parts for jet engines, Boeing has created parts for a variety of planes, Hersey's is printing edible treats in different shapes and, in a darker fashion, Defense Distributed uses home 3D printers to create parts for guns. 

Hewlett-Packard has also said it will enter the 3D printer market this year, although details are sketchy. The firm's interest in the industry, for example, could result in the production of cheap printing units, but may also simply specialize in the production of ink or materials required to print. 

The technology can be used to improve supply chains, but arguably healthcare is benefiting the most from recent interest in 3D printing. Light, cheap prosthetics and artificial bone printing are only two examples of how 3D printing is making healthcare more affordable, and if the technology is going to have serious impact in a market, I would argue that healthcare is the best bet. 

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Six clicks: 3D printing industry predictions for the next 5 years

Six clicks: 3D printing industry predictions for the next 5 years

As 3D printing increases in popularity, these are the trends we predict to take the tech world by force.

In the consumer realm, firms such as Shapeways allow you to print off your own products -- as expensive as it can be -- but this is a niche market and is unlikely to expand beyond enthusiasts and those who currently enjoy the novelty factor. 

We also have to keep in mind that 3D printing in vast amounts often hogs huge amounts of energy, and so may not be viable for smaller businesses and projects beyond prototypes and tiny batches. 

While any movement in markets that spurs on competition and innovation are generally beneficial, 3D printing will still only have limited use in the consumer sector. The technology has applications in healthcare, construction and manufacturing, but is unlikely to be suitable as a household product beyond small, novelty printers which may be fun to print out gifts or designs, but no more than that.

Technological trends come and go, some leave a mark, and some do not. The mobility trend has resulted in declining PC sales and has spread worldwide, whereas we are yet to see whether wearable technology captures the imagination of the consumer in the same way.

The "next big thing" needs to insinuate itself into the consumer realm -- as well as the majority of home and businesses to deserve the name. 3D printing, although exciting and interesting, is unlikely to fulfil this role, as it will be a household novelty rather than becoming a household necessity. 

While valuable, 3D printing lacks the "revolutionary" label as it will remain in the manufacturing space for a long time to come, and unlike mobile devices -- which I would label "revolutionary" due to market spread and often low cost -- 3D printers require heavy investment for the kit, materials and maintenance -- making it unsuitable for the average home. The technology is within a 'hype' stage, but eventually will find its niche within manufacturing and supply chains, novelty products and in the creation of prosthetics in healthcare. Valuable? Absolutely. Revolutionary? Sadly not. 

Topic: Emerging Tech

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27 comments
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  • wow I'm glad you are wrong about this!

    Robohand is being 3D printed all over the world and helping people.

    The novelty for you might wear off quickly, but the technology (even though it isn't "new") will change the lives of millions of people.
    lizhavlinUSA
    • She's right, IMO

      Robohand is being 3D printed all over the world and helping people.

      Sure, and she did say " if the technology is going to have serious impact in a market, I would argue that healthcare is the best bet."

      But it falls into the category she mentioned -manufacturing. Robohand is not something the majority of people need, so they won't get a 3d printer to make one, so it is an important need, true, but one that most people will never encounter, so the need will never exist.

      And without "need" will something like this take off based solely on "want"?
      William.Farrel
      • implants, prosthetics, and orthotics oh my

        There's gold in them thar 3D printers :-)
        greywolf7
      • HERE WE GO AGAIN.

        Ha, this is so funny. Maybe no, its not.

        I guess it isn't funny anymore because we have travelled this road so many times we know the way like the back of our hand; and yet there are those of us who should be experts and get lost.

        “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977

        “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” — Bill Gates

        “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — New York Times, 1936

        “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” — Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895.

        “The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most.” — IBM, to the eventual founders of Xerox, saying the photocopier had no market large enough to justify production, 1959

        “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” — Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter’s call for investment in the radio in 1921.

        "Despite excitement over the technology and dreams of printing off our own clothes and utensils, if 3D printing is fated to become revolutionary, this will take place in the factory, not the home" - Charlie Osborne-Tech writer for ZDNet circa 2014

        History has shown over and over again so many times that it should make all our heads spin, that negative predictions on the future of ground breaking technology, where the negative predictions have to rely on little to no public interest (without great explanation) and little to no advancement in the products portability and efficiency and/or price, or its improved ability to create ever faster, better and more complex results, are usually prediction that are wrong.

        Sure, poor public interest can kill commercial viability on practically anything and everything. But if that's part of a prediction where the product is inherently intriguing in and of itself, you had better be prepared to explain the fatal flaw in the product that despite its inherently intriguing factors it is likely to fail to draw broad public acceptance.

        Massive prices will often drop. Sometimes a particular product may have some inherently anti social aspect to it that can hurt it if its not fixed. But in any respect, to claim nobody would be interested needs to be explained if it is an interesting product.

        Current mediocre performance is seldom a killer if there is enough early adoption even by a minimum number of the public. Performance in almost any technologically driven product will almost inevitably improve over short periods of time with correlating astounding improvements in early development periods. Consumerization of what appeared to be something of a more commercial or industrial product will not just improve the product vastly in general performance, but usually in numerous clever innovative ways that improve home use of a product.

        WE KNOW THESE THINGS PEOPLE.

        Its well known IT history.

        I predict the 3D printer is going to be a game changer for society in general, not very soon, but not unusually long either.
        Cayble
        • Don't believe all the hype

          Ok, I agree with the title.

          But from there on in, you've got it completely wrong.

          There will be minimal use of 3D printing in factories.

          There are very few things that can't be made quicker, cheaper and more reliable by using traditional manufacturing methods.

          Clearly 3D printing has a role in prototyping. It'e been doing that for years.

          But I doubt that it has a role directly in the consumer space unless you want to live on a remote island.

          But one place where 3D printing may have a big impact is in the spare parts business with local parts centres licensed to print off spares on an as required basis. In practice this could extend the working life of many products as spare parts could remain available pretty much indefinitely.
          Henry 3 Dogg
          • You just set up your own answer

            Spare parts - even just small parts - is absolutely huge. Enormous. She is dead wrong, just as with her assumption that since wearables haven't taken off, nobody wants them. How incredibly myopic can someone in this business be?!

            For both 3D and wearables, we have to go through the first phases of efficiency gains. As so clearly stated by @Cayble, these phases are typical and predictable. Costs will come down, usability will go up. I'd bet my last dollar on it.
            Lucky2BHere
          • Boat parts, auto parts

            I think in the home is a bit much, but in the neighborhood?

            Definitely!
            lizhavlinUSA
        • doesn't apply

          Citing past predictions that were wrong doesn't make a current prediction any more right or wrong, it just means that even knowledgeable people may not be able to judge potential. How about all of the now-obscure innovations that were predicted to change the world but didn't? Someone saying that there's no practical use for a home computer for the average person has nothing to do with whether a home 3D printer will be a colossal success or something to be found stuck away in closets in a few years. Certainly the process is a useful one for some things, but the inefficiency alone brings up a question of whether printing a bunch of soon-useless plastic junk at a fair is just another thing most of us will never need. Can't find your shoehorn? Just print one up; keep doing that and soon you have even more piles of useless junk produced by wasted energy.

          Now get on your Segway, eat your breakfast pill, and pop on your Google glasses, knowing you're on the cutting edge...this is where we're all headed.

          Now get on your segway
          garyleroy@...
      • Over 1,000 Robohands printed and counting...

        Need a reason to believe in 3D printing?

        3D printing prosthetics in Africa

        Project Daniel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDYFMgrjeLg

        Luckily some of us don't listen when we "shouldn't" do something because "it will never work"
        lizhavlinUSA
  • Application

    The key is, as usual, a combination of good marketing/branding and having a killer application. What's needed is only one frequently used item where buying and using a 3D printer makes more financial sense than buying the item, and an aggressive marketing campaign for an easy to use printer that can produce said item.

    I agree that buying a 3D printer just for the sake of having one (and to play around with it) is currently a hype that will fade. What will make them ubiquitous is using them to create a small number of useful things which it produces in equal or better quality than what you'd buy in a shop.
    Sacr
    • Agree

      "The key is, as usual, a combination of good marketing/branding and having a killer application. What's needed is only one frequently used item where buying and using a 3D printer makes more financial sense than buying the item, and an aggressive marketing campaign for an easy to use printer that can produce said item."

      This I agree with. It needs a killer app to go much beyond the initial hype.
      CobraA1
      • Someone please invent a sensor that works with a smart phone app that can..

        ... tell the difference between HDPE, Polypropylene, etc so we can sort easily sort recycling and use it to make 3D printer "ink"
        lizhavlinUSA
  • 3d hype??

    I expect HP to come out with large scale printers, REALLY large in comparison to a makerbot, big enough to make industrial moulds, and large prototypes, like 4 foot by 8 foot square, and a few feet high. That would change everything. Don't expect them to use a filament, an extruder with a hot hopper of plastic beads.

    They are painfully slow, not expecting that to change anytime soon.
    sparkle farkle
    • 1 hour to print vs. 45 days in a shipping container from China

      Spoken like a true microwave popcorn eater

      =)
      lizhavlinUSA
  • it's a sad day when

    The difficulty of the problems being solved is not the impediment to progress:

    "The majority of key patents surrounding additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, have either expired or come close to expiry, which gives the industry the push required to advance. "
    happyharry_z
  • A common story...

    We've heard this exact story about most new technologies over the years - home computers, recordable CD drives, home laser printers, and before these, probably things like video recorders (VCRs), microwave ovens, air conditioning, refrigerators, personal automobiles, etc.

    Let the technology develop a little more, become easier to use and less expensive, and markets will open. We've bought our son dozens upon dozens of matchbox cars, trains and other small plastic toys. There's no doubt we'd have purchased models and printed our own had the technology been a little further along.

    It's only a lack of imagination that would lead one to believe home 3D printing will be a passing fad. It definitely has a healthy helping of hype at the moment, but once that hype is replaced with reality, the sky is the limit.
    PC987
  • Sorry Charlie, but you're wrong

    Just because 3D printers are complex and slow today doesn't mean they always will be. Downloading and printing objects could be as simple as downloading and installing an app on your smartphone someday soon.

    It's going to take someone coming forward with a simple consumer-grade printer and easy to use object download ecosystem before 3D Printing hits "revolution" status, but I earnestly believe that day is coming sometime in the next few years. The convenience 3D printing could offer to the consumer is just too huge to ignore.

    I wrote all about why 3D printing is going to change everything for YAYA Connection. Check it out: http://goo.gl/1qvoIX
    ajroder
  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

    If Thomas Watson, could render such idiocy, why not expect the same from ZDNet Analysts.

    3D Printing is here to stay, although it still has to find a killer app, but just like LCD screens, Social Media and smart phones, once someone finds the right solution (HD flat panels, Facebook and the iPhone), we will wonder why we could live without them.
    cosuna
  • Misses the point

    While it is true that there is no Moore's type law - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law applying to 3D printers, this article misses the point. 3D printers allow small batch manufacturing to be set up with little investment - the traditional barrier to entry in manufacturing is rapidly disappearing. 3D printing as discussed on our blog - 3D Printing News numerous times presents serious competition to large scale manufacturers. Yes it is true the unit costs are still high, quality is still an issue but if you use 3D printers to make moulds, you will have serious competition today and not just at some point in the future.
    3DPrintWise
  • Please check your facts.

    Defense distributed does not use home 3D printers. They lease a machine from Stratasys or 3D Systems. Oh yeah and they have a license to manufacture firearms. There are people who use home printers for that kind of thing but then there are also people who play with fireworks...
    getfactstraightpls