You’ve likely experienced content extolling the wonders of 3D printing and the supposed manufacturing revolution that it portends. Early reports from some of the larger 3D printer companies suggested that at a non-specified date in the near future every single home would have a printer capable of producing a myriad of common place objects rendering established supply chains obsolete. We would live in a techno-utopia of custom fitted clothing, life-saving prosthetics, and almost disposable parts that literally grew inside of a machine in mere hours and cost next to nothing to produce.
Basically none of the grandiose early promises made by the evangelists of the 3D printing community have come to pass. In fact, even much of the seemingly overtly cautious optimism from analysts (“This technology is useful but won’t be seen in widespread implementation for another 6-8 years.”) of the nascent movement in massively distributed mass manufacturing have not yet born fruit over a decade later.
That’s not to say that 3D printing as a technology isn’t incredibly powerful or growing in popularity; it is and more. MMID uses many printers in the prototyping and low volume production process for basically every project regardless of budget or physical scale. It’s a downright miracle that CAD- prior to 3D printing only understood by technicians as volumetric renderings on a computer screen- can be translated into tangible goods with comparatively little effort. I personally own a 3D printer; it sits in my closet and hums away happily eating spools of plastic filament by the kilogram. Yet- just like you- I’m still waiting for that promised utopian vision to begin to reveal itself.
Within the United States, the debate over the utility of 3D printing has become political and one of social concern as a select few entities have published the files necessary for printing commonly available firearms on the Internet for general consumption. This is not a thinkpiece on the merits or demerits of the Second Amendment (for non-Americans: it’s the part of the US Constitution that guarantees the right to own firearms) however the current discussion on 3D printed weapons in the USA seems pertinent to this post. Politicians and analysts alike frame their discourse under the idea that anyone can simply buy a printer and manufacture firearms at will and, by extension, that the 3D printing revolution we were promised more than ten years ago has been happening this whole time.
Despite the talk, only half a million printers were sold globally throughout the entirety of 2017. Certainly a lot- no question there- but not yet nearly as endemic as early promises made out.
3D PRINTERS ARE STILL FICKLE ANIMALS THAT MUST BE CONVINCED THAT DOING THEIR JOB IS A GOOD THING
As the technology has matured and become cheaper, an ever-increasing number of companies have begun to sell the printers themselves, the accessories that augment those printers, and the supplies required to run them. If Generation 1 companies were the bold explorers charting new territory and making a commensurate number of mistakes along the way, Generation 2 companies were those that grew from the failures of Gen 1 and profited. They standardized filament widths and compositions, improved ease of use and reliability in their machines, and occasionally came up with something truly unique as in the case of companies like the MIT Media Labs spin off Formlabs or the “self-replicating” printer called the Prusa i3 made by Josef Prusa and his company Prusa Research. Gen 3 companies are now beginning to come online in force. They have improved on filament compositions to create materials that have measurable and predictable engineering properties and their technology is generally well-understood and reliable. However, 3D printers are still subject to an astounding amount of variability especially in the sub-$10k price bracket. At MMID, we encounter this type of technical mysticism when working with those types of machines as well despite the fact that we fall solidly within the category of advanced technical power users with specialist knowledge. For the average user and even the average non-technical power user, these challenges still make 3D printing difficult when manufacturing to tight tolerances or at high volume.
INTEGRAL PARTS OF THE 3D PRINTING PROCESS ARE STILL COVERED UNDER PATENT AND WILL BE FOR A LONG TIME
Stratasys was the first company to invent and then market a 3D printer that uses the now commonplace FDM (fused deposition modeling) technology wherein what essentially amounts to a hot glue gun extrudes measured amounts of plastic filament along a layered path. The first Stratasys patent for the underlying technology found in the first Stratasys printer, dubbed “3D Modeler”, was filed in 1989. Almost 30 years later, the FDM printers that we rely upon are largely the same the first commercially-available 3D printers.
Innovations in the non-industrial 3D printer market are- at least in part- driven by the expiration of technology patents held by large multinational industrial-grade printer manufacturers. For example, the concept of a water-soluble support filament that allows an object with complex internal/functional geometry (like a gear transmission) to be printed in one shot was patented by Stratasys in 1997; in 2017 the patent expired and the market quickly reacted by offering many variants on the technology covered under the patent. Formlabs’ first printer, the Form 1, printed via the stereolithography (SLA) process wherein a controlled emission of light catalyzes and cures a reactive resin in successive layers; Formlabs was only allowed to proceed with commercialization at scale after litigating their way through a patent dispute with 3D Systems which, like Stratasys, is one of the original inventors in market and the patent holder on at least part of the technology underlying the Form 1. This dispute famously played out concurrent to the filming of the 2014 Netflix documentary Print the Legend. Formlabs ended up settling with 3D Systems later that year for 8% of net sales over an unspecified period of time and has since diversified into selective-laser sintering (SLS) printers that fuse plastic powder together using a high-power laser. Of course, Formlabs was only able to take this step after the patent for the underlying technology expired.
WE’VE HIT THE BOTTOM OF WHAT A PRINTER CAN COST AND IT’S STILL PRETTY EXPENSIVE
At the time of publication, the cheapest FDM printer available on the market sells for about $130 USD which is just about as affordable as 3D printers will get barring the creation of a breakthrough unobtainium-level FDM technology by a firm uninterested in patenting their innovation and/or selling at penetration pricing. Normal FDM printer printers are now commonplace and standardized enough that the parts are widely distributed and cheap; “specialist” parts like stepper motors and driver boards are also used in other contexts increasing economies of scale even further.
That being said, the bottom end machines available at such low price points definitely print although not reliably and certainly in a limited variety of materials all of which have- for the sake of brevity- the same basic mechanical properties. These materials (PLA and its composite variants) are not considered engineering grade and largely suitable for prototyping, light duty parts, and sculpture. Successive revisions of the bottom-end 3D printers will likely introduce manufacturing improvements resulting in global enhancements in basic print quality. Due to inflexibility in the raw material and component costs of the specialized parts that enable more advanced and/or reliable forms of 3D printing with engineering-grade filaments, it is unlikely that bottom-end 3D printers will ever be even half as capable (without significant modification) as the mid-range machines that are currently for sale.
In order to somewhat reliably print at volume in materials that can be used to produce parts that are functional and durable, expect to spend at least $650. A fully reliable consumer-grade printer with complete filament compatibility will easily cost over $2,000. Commercial and industrial-grade FDM printers with NASA-esque levels of repeatability and interoperability still command prices that regularly exceed $15,000. Moving to a different printing technology (of which there are many; these alternatives methods enable printing in metal or super-premium plastic alloys with engineering properties that mimic metal, composite, or ceramic materials) in any of the three levels mentioned above quickly multiplies costs with top end industrial non-FDM machines commanding prices well in excess of $250,000.
Needless to say, this is a lot of money and as long as costs remain high, distribution will remain low.
YOU STILL NEED TO KNOW CAD
While online libraries of 3D printable parts (e.g. Thingiverse or Turbosquid) make it easier to find things to print, those things are still the things of other people. Those original designers made those things to address their own personal need. While it is certainly possible for someone to download those files and print them, there is limited customization available without modifying the underlying file and no guarantee of interoperability with any other system or device.
The next big frontier in 3D printers is not the printers themselves but is reducing the complexity of the CAD programs used to make files. Early attempts at this exercise in complexity reduction like Sketch-Up or Onshape are powerful tools for creation but seem to- at this point- be useful for specialists looking for a way to rapidly ideate complex ideas in broad strokes before moving into CAD packages like Solidworks, Alias, or Fusion360. These programs represent some of the best CAD technology currently available as they enable the design and production of detailed models useful for mass manufacturing, functional testing, and real-world implementation over long periods of time.
Everything could change tomorrow when a new company comes out with a way to print something at quadruple the speed for one eighth of the price while simultaneously obviating the need to understand technical software packages like Solidworks. I really hope it does because that would honestly be paradigm altering. The promised supply chain disruption would be near-immediate as would the business models that it would enable. It would be possible for a manufacturer to manufacture without any of the high capital expenses required for machining, tooling, or facilities. This future is one that is inevitable at some point and worth examining more closely as- for right now- the rise of these models is not a question of if but rather a question of when.