Let’s curb our 3D-printer enthusiasm, folks

When the White House hypes a technology, it’s time to worry. In his Feb. State of the Union address, the President said 3D printing will “revolutionize the way we make almost everything”.  He described this as the future of manufacturing. The popular media is increasingly touting 3D printing’s potential (there’s even talk of it going mainstream). Expectations are so high for digital fabrication technology that disappointment is inevitable. We will surely see Star Trek-like replicators and large-scale 3D manufacturing plants one day. But this won’t be until sometime in the next decade. So, let’s all calm down, take a page from comedian Larry David and curb our enthusiasm.

President Barack Obama, seen here as he pauses during remarks in the East Room on July 31, 2013, often touts the promise of 3D printing. Change is coming, folks, but not as fast as any of us want. So get ready for the wait. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama, seen here as he pauses during remarks in the East Room on July 31, 2013, often touts the promise of 3D printing. Change is coming, folks, but not as fast as any of us want. So get ready for the wait. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I worry that because of the excess hype, 3D printing will soon suffer the same backlash as solar energy and electric cars.

That is the way exponential technologies usually go. Expectations get raised when people first read about a technological breakthrough. They speculate about its potential. Then nothing seems to happen because the growth curve for technologies in their early stages is more or less flat. Disappointment sets in and the blame game begins. Then, like popcorn in a microwave, the kernels start to pop faster. New products come out of nowhere. The technology curve slopes steeply upwards and disappointment turns into amazement. This is what we are seeing today with the Internet and our cell phones. Just recall how disappointed we were when cellphones were the size of bricks and, a decade ago, when the Internet bubble burst.

We are only in the early stages of 3D printing. The curve is flat for the foreseeable future.

Ofer Shochet, executive vice president of products of Israel-based Stratasys, which makes 3D printers, said in an e-mail that he likens the progression of 3D technologies to Moore’s Law. According to his computations, the resolution and speed of inkjet-based 3D systems double every four years.  He says “this opens the door for unbelievable speed and quality”.

This sounds great until you consider that it currently takes several hours to print an object the size of a breadbox—and the time and cost of printing generally increases exponentially with size. So something of double the size could take eight times as long and cost eight times as much. Want something three times as big? That could take 27 times as long and cost 27 times more. It could take several days to print something the size of a small table.

Autodesk President and CEO Carl Bass highlights another problem: the cost of raw materials. He says that 3D manufacturers have adopted the same business model as inkjet printers—they charge little for hardware but make their profits on cartridges. Materials for 3D printing sell for up to 100 times the cost of the commodity.  Bass says that better business models and more breakthroughs are needed in 3D printing technologies before they become ripe for explosive growth.

The good news is that such technology advances may be on the horizon. What will accelerate these is the expiration of patents which have been inhibiting competition—and innovation. One technology in particular, called selective laser sintering, produces very high-quality 3D objects. But patent holders have been able to maintain a near monopoly and charge tens of thousands of dollars for these printers. Fortunately, key patents on laser sintering expire in February 2014. This will cause a flood of competitors to enter the marketplace. We will surely see better and lower-cost products just as we did a few years ago when the patents expired on another 3D technology called fused deposition modeling.

Designer Susana Soares looks through a 3D printer that makes biscuits from flour made from insects at the Wellcome Collection in London, Tuesday, April 23, 2013.  (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Designer Susana Soares looks through a 3D printer that makes biscuits from flour made from insects at the Wellcome Collection in London, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Shochet says that a revolution is already happening, but at a different place than most people think. He says “while consumers can’t snap their fingers and have an object instantly printed, the people who are impacted by 3D printing today say that it is game-changing for their businesses and even life-changing for them personally”. He sees new level of creativity being instilled in the next generations of designers and engineers who are exposed to 3D printing from the very beginning of their careers.

We are about to see a renaissance in design. Imagine what Leonardo da Vinci could have designed if he had an iPad and 3D printer. That is what millions of creative people all over the world will soon be able to do.

So let’s be excited, but adjust our expectations.

In the foreseeable future, 3D printers will allow us to visualize almost anything we can imagine. Manufacturers will use these to print parts for airplanes and personalized medical devices. Consumers will print customized toys for their children and jewelry for themselves. We won’t—for a long time—see the large-scale manufacturing revolution that Obama is hoping for. That revolution will, however, happen after we become bitterly disappointed.

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