After reading yet another mainstream publication talk about “3D printed human organs” I thought it wise to share my thoughts about the five most frequently heard myths of 3D printing.
These myths have been around since I started in this business over 12 years ago, and for some unexplainable reason they have not gone away. Perhaps it was because of the initial excitement over the technology and the corresponding lack of true, depth understanding of what it could do and not do.
Now, years later when we should all be more knowledgable about 3D printing, some of these myths are even now stronger than ever.
But they’re still myths.
3D Printers Are Only For Prototyping
This was a true statement years ago because the initial materials available in early 3D printers were really designed to make it easy for the printer to print, and the thought of using parts produced into those materials for a real-life application wasn’t truly possible.
Thus initial uses of 3D printers were for prototyping shapes and sizes of parts, and not so much for testing heat or mechanical resistance.
That has changed with the introduction of many new materials of engineering quality, particularly those in the high temperature ranges. PEEK, ULTEM, PEKK, Carbon Fiber-Reinforced and many other materials are now routinely used with the right equipment.
On the metal side, metal prints have now been certified as having sufficient quality and consistency to be used in real-life applications, and in particular in the aerospace industry. Production parts made through additive manufacturing are now normal.
Sure, 3D printing is still used for prototyping, and always will be. But production parts are the future.
3D Printed Human Organs
Twelve years later, there are no 3D printed organs.
What there has been has been a steady progress of innovations towards the idea of 3D printed organs, which could theoretically replace the need for donations and transplants. However, that’s a very, very long way off yet.
The problem is that human organs are highly complex bio-machines made from many different components, all “grown” over several years. To replace that requires an incredibly detailed understanding of what’s happening in the organs to an almost molecular degree. We’re no where near any of that.
Yes, you can 3D print very simple organs, such as “skin”, but a new heart? Stomach? It’s going to be quite a while yet.
3D Printed Houses
I seem to be writing about this one every week, but let’s do it again briefly.
There are monthly press releases from one unscrupulous company or another boasting of 3D printed homes being produced in only 24 hours! This is patently false, as the homes are actually entirely built with conventional methods, except that a portion of the concrete work was done using a computer-controlled concrete extrusion system.
If someone said, “Concrete Foundation 3D Printed In 24 Hours!” I would be happy.
But no one says that. Ever.
3D Printed Dinner
One of the first questions I am always asked about the technology is whether dinner can be 3D printed. I have no idea why there is this fascination about 3D printed food, other than perhaps people are inherently lazy and are hoping for a Star Trek-like steak dinner to magically appear.
The biggest issue is that 3D printing is slow, and you’d likely starve before dinner could be prepared. This alone has relegated the notion of 3D printed food to pre-made items, like cake toppers.
Foods are being 3D printed, but there are enormous constraints on the type of food material, as it usually must be reduced to an extrudable paste. Long ago 3D Systems announced sugar and chocolate 3D printers targeted at chefs, but they didn’t seem to have any legs and were swiftly discontinued.
Once again the issue comes down to materials: many foods are complex compositions of multiple ingredients combined in a specific sequence using particular mixing techniques. These are not processes found on typical 3D printers, which usually employ a single making process to build an object in a single material.
I think a different kind of 3D printing technology is ultimately required for true “dinner printing”.
3D Printers “Bring Back Manufacturing”
The loss of manufacturing jobs in the West has been quite problematic for many families, and anything to restore those jobs would seem quite desirable. Those jobs went to two places: Asian countries where the worker wages were a lot lower, and to robotic automation. In fact, I’m told the automation effect was actually far greater than the low wage effect.
Nevertheless, could “jobs come back”? I’m afraid I don’t think so. Should a manufacturer set up a new factory, it’s almost certain the factory would make extensive use of robotic automation, and in particular 3D printers, leaving only a few supervisory, machine operations and design jobs available. It’s actually likely that as the cost of automation drops, even the low-wage earning Asian workers themselves could find themselves being automated out of work. Everyone can use the same 3D printers regardless of location, after all.
Perhaps “manufacturing” can be brought back to the West, but there won’t be many jobs coming with it.
Those are my five biggest myths of 3D printing. Do you have some of your own?