3D Printing Reality Checklist

An article posted on ExtremeTech showed up recently and introduced 3D printing to the general public in the usual overly-optimistic way: 
  • a replicator and teleporter in every home
  • You can plug it into your computer via USB, load up some freely-available 3D modeling software, and print stuff; it really is that simple. The only real barrier to mass adoption is the initial purchase price
  • wireless versions that can sit on the kitchen worktop won’t be far behind
  • it is becoming increasingly easy to simply download a 3D design, right click it, and press “create.”
  • Imagine pressing the “bowl” or “cup” button on the 3D printer in the kitchen, followed by the “fork” or “spoon” button. It would even work for larger objects like cutting boards and colanders and laundry baskets
  • With our current grasp of additive manufacturing, we could do these things now
Ok, that’s enough quotes. There are a lot more in there along the same line. 
We believe in a 3D printing future, where yes, you can print things on demand. But that’s just not true today. Articles like this tend to make the general public overly optimistic about 3D printing. The truth is that we will slowly develop more capabilities and features over the course of years, and gradually the public will enter the space and begin to print simple things, followed by more complex things as hardware and software evolve. 
All too often we speak to people who are truly enthusiastic about 3D printing, having seen or read similar reports in the mass media. But then we have to explain the actual state of affairs so they can understand where things really are at the moment. Here’s some statements you can use when when you encounter someone whose head is exploding after first hearing about personal 3D printing:
  • Big time commercial 3D printers can produce some really amazing objects, but home/hobby 3D printers are far less capable at the moment
  • Print resolutions are pretty rough, analogous to the dot-matrix 2D printers of the 1970’s. But they’re slowly improving
  • Not every shape can be printed. There are limits to the size of objects and the geometry of some shapes can only be printed on certain types of printers
  • Simple objects are generally quite printable – but objects with internal or moving parts can be difficult or in some cases impossible to print
  • Just because someone did a successful experiment printing in titanium/pasta/concrete/avocados doesn’t mean you’ll be able to. Current “stock” personal 3D printers are quite limited in the materials they can print
  • You can’t just press a button and get your object immediately; printing takes a long time. Often hours or even days in some cases, particularly for large or high-resolution objects 
  • Personally affordable 3D scanning of objects produces only rudimentary models/sculptures 
  • Designing 3D models for printing takes serious skill and sometimes expensive software
That should cool them off and keep heads from exploding. What did we miss?
We do think higher quality 3D printers will eventually emerge because there are tons of very smart, well-funded engineers working on ways to improve 3D printing today, but it will take a few years before we begin to approach the personal 3D printing vision that many seem to seek. 
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