Hardware

3D printing: 10 factors still holding it back

As promising as 3D printers seem, their usefulness is still questionable. High costs, safety concerns, patents, and design complexity are all contributing to legitimate skepticism.
 
3D printing fails
3D printers may not be as useful or as easy to use as they seem.
 Image: Fred Kahl/Flickr
Yes, 3D printing stands to completely transform the way we make, replace, and transport products and will disrupt nearly every major industry. However, the technology is still geared toward passionate, motivated makers and hobbyists—not the average citizen.

We've compiled a list of 10 reasons 3D printing hasn't quite caught on yet and what is holding the technology back.

SEE: 3D printing: A primer for business and technology professionals

1. Awaiting the breakthrough consumer model

Widespread consumer adoption will depend on 3D printers dropping in price. Currently, printers less than $1,000 use a DIY-style kit that requires assembly of the machine itself and they often don't replicate the CAD designs accurately. But, relatively cheap 3D printers do exist. At $299, the Printrbot Simple is an affordable option, though it is very basic and can't print high-quality products. Also well under $1,000 is RepRap's open-source line of printers, which have to be assembled separately. The Cubify Cube is about $1,300 and probably the best desktop option since it connects to wifi, but its plastic filament can't make anything too sturdy.

printerbot.jpg
The Printrbot Simple Kit cost $349 and comes with a disclaimer that the company is not responsible for your ability to put it together.
 Image: Printrbot

For the most part, anything bigger or better than these costs well into the thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars. The MakerBot Replicator 2 runs at about $2,200, which was also the roundabout figure for a top-of-the-line computer in the 1980s. Until reliable, convenient, sleek 3D printers hit the market, the revolutionary effects of the technology will be stymied.

2. Expense of SLS printers

Major patents on selective laser sintering (SLS) printers expired in January, so perhaps the prices of these machines—which run as high as $250,000 will decrease. When the patents on fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers expired, there was an explosion of open source FDM printers that led the technology to become a hobby. The best example was MakerBot, which launched as the most well-known FDM printer almost immediately after the FDM patent expired.

SLS printers offer the ability to print with more materials such as glass, metal, plastic, and ceramic, but with the high-powered lasers comes a higher manufacturing price. It may never be as cheap as an FDM machine, and therefore may take a longer time to catch on in the consumer market, if at all.

3. Patents and legal murkiness

This year, many patents on 3D printers will expire, possibly creating more competition, innovation, and lower prices. However, there are still quite a few overlapping patents out there, however, which causes a lot of murkiness. During the last decade, the Patent and Trademark Office has received more than 6,800 3D printing patent applications. Since 2007, almost 700 patents have been filed annually.

Another intellectual property issue comes with what the machines are printing. Right now, it's easy to log on to Shapeways and download a CAD file of just about anything. But soon, there will be lawsuits and competition between brands over knockoffs and copyright infringement.

4. The usefulness gap

keanu.jpg
One of the most popular 3D printed items on Shapeways is "Sad Keanu Reeves."
 Image: neuralfirings/Shapeways

Sure, plastic action figures, iPhone cases, and Star Wars-themed novelties are fun to design and print with a relatively affordable desktop 3D printer like the Cube, but they aren't exactly impactful on our everyday lives, nor are they convincing consumers the machines are a worthy investment.

"There's no compelling application in the present time because anything you can print on a 3D printer, besides from things that are truly customized, you can buy at a store," said Pete Basiliere, lead Gartner analyst for 3D printing. He said a compelling consumer application—something that can only be created at home on a 3D printer—will hit the scene by 2016.

5. Plastic filament isn't sturdy enough

For the foreseeable future, the cheapest and most accessible 3D printers will be FDM.  These are the desktop printers that use PLA and ABS plastic, which easily melt and fit small molds. However, the plastic isn't sturdy and not many household products with moving parts can be created from the material. Printers will need to use carbon composites or metals to become more useful to the average consumer, as well as manufacturers.

6. That 3D-printed gun

 
liberator.jpg
A man successfully 3D printed and fired a plastic gun.
 Image: CNET

Before the majority of Americans could wrap their heads around how 3D printing works, a man named Cody Wilson designed, printed, and successfully fired a 3D printed gun. The STL file was available for free on his website the next day, and 100,000 people downloaded it before the U.S. Department of State ordered him to take it down. Since an all-plastic 3D gun probably won't catch on, other companies are working on using SLS technology to print a metal one. So, in December 2013, Congress voted to renew an expiring ban on plastic firearms that could slip past metal detectors, though it didn't add any new restrictions on plastic guns. Philadelphia was the first city to ban 3D printed firearms. A Chicago lawmaker wants to make it illegal to use a 3D printer to make gun parts unless the user has a federal gun manufacturer's license.

Wilson's plastic 3D printed gun showcased these loopholes in the law and caused an uproar across the country about the potential dangers of 3D printing technology. Whether you agree with it or not, the ability to easily print and distribute weaponry will surely cause skepticism about this technology for some time.

7. 3D printers aren't that user-friendly

Setting up a 3D printer will need to be as easy as hooking up a traditional HP printer. The 3D printer needs to have fewer wires than a television and fewer buttons than a computer for it to become a household electronic, and right now, that's not the case. The printers use high-voltage power supplies and specialized equipment and parts. Some of the cheapest printers can't even connect to wifi and most have low resolution.

Because of the hype around the potential and the cute plastic toys that they produce, 3D printers have come across as easier and more useful than they actually are. The best products that have been created—think tools, musical instruments, car parts—are made using huge, high-end printers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those sub-$1,000 machines that sit on a desk just aren't going to be as productive.

8. Complex design software

Downloadable files from Thingiverse and Shapeways are easy to get, but they are not moderated and therefore may not work on every type of printer. If you want to design your own file, you need a working knowledge of CAD design. Setting up the model and using the printer takes quite a bit of patience and time, which is another reason the technology has primarily been used by enthusiasts up to this point.

9. 3D printers are still slow

3D printers are great for mass customization, but are still too slow for manufacturing lots of objects. To change the manufacturing industry, the parts need to be printed in minutes, not hours. It currently takes anywhere from several hours to several days to print, depending on the size of the model and the quality of the printer. Receiving an order from Shapeways, the company that customizes and 3D prints a variety of products, can take up to two weeks, depending on the materials used.

10. Safety concerns

The FDM printers, which use plastic filament, are relatively safe to use—they are often made for desktops and contain both the mold and the residue—but they aren't foolproof, and they reach very high temperatures.

Powder-based printers are messy and potentially explosive depending on what is being made from them. They operate at extremely high temperatures and produce waste. It's not something a consumer would want in their home office. Indoor air quality and the emissions from 3D printers, particularly SLS printers, are also cause for concern.

Also see

About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

34 comments
ferrariqx
ferrariqx

I paid and paid for 3D printed parts from a company in Italy called TheArea71.  After 9 months, I'm still waiting for my parts.  The owner, Marco Rizzi, says he has experienced printer problems but after 9 months, I'm tired of the excuses.  I've heard at least 20 times that the parts are ready only to be disappointed with never receiving them.  I don't know about the other 3D printing companies, but it's pretty obvious, TheArea71 is a complete and total fraud. 

mr_bandit
mr_bandit

This is a poorly researched article.


All of my R&D clients in the last 5 years have either had 3D printers or used a service. The Mechanical engineers used them on a regular basis for prototypes. The printers ranged from a $100K Objet to a riprap on their desk.


Second, *all* technologies follow the same basic curve few and expensive to common and cheap. The prices will go down, and fairly rapidly in this case.


Applications currently range from traditional MechE development to toys to serious medical research. The current medical uses include printing a trachea sheath for a baby to replacement body parts (repairing holes in skulls, replacement jaw), to planning heart surgery. This list does not include the serious experiments in 3D printing replacement body parts. Bladders are regularly printed now. Hearts, livers, and kidneys are 3..5 years away, printing out the scaffolding then impregnating them with stem cells, or specific cells formed from the patient's own stem cells.

The biohacking is growing rapidly in both the professional (medical research) and hobby groups (many who are medical or biochemical professionals). The hobby groups are at about the same level as amateur astronomers are to professional astronomers, to wit, doing great science.


Museums are starting to scan various 3D works and printing them for researchers and the public.


Read Cory Doctorow's "Makers" for an excellent thought experiment in ubiquitous 3D printers.


One can make a riprap for about $500, printing the joints on another 3D printer. Any reasonable-sized Makerspace/hackerspace (see hackerspaces.org) has people you can learn from. Yes, some of the software is a bit clunky, but the software will improve in the next couple of years. If you have the money, Solidworks or its competitor (Autodesk?) will do a fine job - but you are getting a professional tool, with an associated learning curve.


NASA is experimenting with 3D printing for rocket engines. The hobby rocket folks are not far behind (and will be ahead of NASA in some cases).


Yes, there are some patent issues, but these will resolve in the next few years. Yes, a 3D printed gun has been done - but one can make a quality gun with machine shop tools.


Ms. Gilpin should do a better job of homework.



tvmuzik
tvmuzik

There they go again, bringing up the "3D gun" issue just like they mentioned in a previous article ("The Dark Side of 3D Printing").  It just haaad to be about the gun, eh!  Jeez, first they say the plastic filament "isn't sturdy enough" and then in the next paragraph they bring up the "3D gun".  They need to make up their minds: either the plastic filament "isn't sturdy enough", or that damn 3D gun! (facepalm)

PReinie
PReinie

I wish the 5 minute editing window would be since you last edited. Guess I have to write it up elsewhere and paste into the post. Please change my last post's sentence of "Having eyes on the back of your head would be fun too - right mom?" to "Now mom can really have eyes on the back of her head! "

PReinie
PReinie

I wouldn't mind having a spare house or car key in my wallet, even if it's just to get in. (Ignition needs a chip.) But I can see the issues handing out spare keys for the complex's excercise or pool room.

Now if I can just get the 3-D scanner working!

DreadDave - TechRepublic publishes many articles that address a certain topic, in this case "still holding it back", and usually another that takes an alternative view, like "a useful product", and I do remember an article last year discussing that concept about 3D printers. That just seems to be the way TR publishes some articles.

Someone else mentioned human parts. Granted that's a lot further off (if at all possible), but I can see printing up an ear to replace one you froze off (this winter in Chicago has helped with that - but not to anyone I've heard of) as all it needs to do is direct sound to your ear canal. Perhaps an extra ear or finger for halloween would be fun too! Having eyes on the back of your head would be fun too - right mom? Or how about a unicorn horn?

Anyone recall the "nose" from the movie "A Clockwork Orange". (I guess then the XXX porn markets might loose some business by customers designing for their own needs.)

timpagebrown
timpagebrown

Speed, price and quality, same old problems. These issues will be addressed as and when the need or desire arises. It is my sincere belief that in the next 2 years, higher speed commercial printers will be capable of handling most engineering plastics, with greater accuracies. These features will eventually translate to domestic machines, but only when the desire and need arise.

Mike cap
Mike cap

Challenge to this article

1 for a manufacturing method to change a way of business a cheap consumer model is not required! Small comuters revolutionized the office at a cost point thirty years ago of over 3000 each. About 6500 today...and ..a 1000 desktop model for hme use is niether a goal nor a requirement.

2 250k. Try nearly a million for mitsubishis laters additive laser sintering center. At that price it is not cheap but not outside of a cost point where a cost benfit analysis will ot show a positive roi. The reduction of several machinging and or welding steps can reduce machine time , handling , set up and waste to such an extent that this can be a profoitable item. Note cnc machining centers are not cheap.

3. Macchi e bought cad software bought. The proccesing IP goes with t. A fact you used SLS to make a part is no more patentable than using a lath to do the same. The machinery and process methodology is what is panetned. Not the fact use is the method.

4 usefullness gap....... Not bloodly likely. I cannot now buy a stainless stell lug set for a bicycle in a store. I would have to have them custom designed from my design to accomidate an investment casting process, have a master made have a sub modl made to make the wax model set the model with sprues risers and vents. Have a ceramic coating over that, supprt this in a sand cope. Then cast the part , the trim polish and final macine.

Sls can remove enough of those steps that a oone off lugged bicycle cost can be driven down to that of a standardized sized lugged bike...where custom fitting is not allow. This is in the market..NOW!

The last answered 5 also.

6. Make it out of metal! SLS metal guns have been made and test fired. Big deal!

7.. Neither were the first pc programs...cad is also not hard to use. And better than that how cares.. You design in any 3 d model prohgram you want. Make a step fle. Send to ansls capable manufacturing center. They do the conversion amd run the machine. As for the st...fine metal powders can be dangerous. ButTi,Cres, and many others are not.

This was a poorly resesarched article focused o bashing a technology soley because it did not fit a hobbist focus. Technology often does not and may never.but does not end its usefullness nor applicabilty. And rerly limits it.

High speed machinng is a mulitbillion dollar industry. You will not find it on a desktop.

Composite have revolutionived sporting good aerospace etc....you can make a decent composite part at home....but not unless you know a lot and have talent.

DreadDave
DreadDave

What about all the positives pertaining to 3d printing? Fast and cheap prototypes for industry for instance.
I understand you are only pointing out the negatives in this article, There are challenges, but 3d Printing does have a bright future. So many good things can, and DO come of it. 

If you don't have some personal reasons against it, I fully expect to see another article: "10 reasons 3d Printing Will Benefit Our Lives". 

Unbiased Journalism ftw!

EnEm1
EnEm1

You did not mention the 11th factor...... Human Integrity and Moral Murkiness. It's amazing how all technological advancements seem to first attract crooks, criminals and degenerates, including the ones on Capitol Hill. The latter will muscle in with their Ten Thousand Commandments and shackle the Creators and Producers, like they've done over the  Millennia and all in the name of the "Greater Good".....whatever the hell that expression is supposed to represent.


The crooks and criminals will find ways to use 3-D faster and regrettably more efficiently while the good guys are spending their time vacillating.

EnEm1
EnEm1

You did not mention the 11th factor...... Human Integrity and Moral Murkiness.

richard233
richard233

I really don't expect 3-D printers to ever truly catch on for the home, except in the sense that you have people using them as a hobby like home craft shops.  I do expect that eventually you will see stores pop up in the way we used to have hardware stores that would create needed items on demand.


Need an exotic part to repair your device?  You contact the maker and they either give or sell you a limited use digital file that you can then have the specialty shop create for you.  Time and shipping costs are thus saved in many instances.  I'm guessing that many a company would happily give out the design for some minor cog that gets broken, perhaps with an updated one, to keep their customers happy.

pjboyles
pjboyles

For an interesting look at how 3D printing might affect the future and issues that might arise check out the book "Rule 34" by Charles Stross.

jjk308
jjk308

The 3D printed plastic pistol was a joke.  It started to fall apart as soon as it was fired and because of the low strength of the plastics was very bulky. 


For those who know little about firearms technology be advised that there have been very few advances in the past 100 years of real significance, the reason the Colt 1911, designed by John Browning, is still extremely popular.  Besides some stronger and lighter materials the only post WWII advances have been related to manufacturing technology, mostly replacing time consuming forging and milling with precision casting and polymers in low stressed parts.   


Because of the simplicity of the basic firearms technology anyone with a modest home workshop can make effective firearms given the time, patience, a little manual dexterity and the ability to follow directions. The gunsmiths of the Khyber pass region turn out large quantities of firearms, including auto-loading pistols and Kalashnikov copies, with tools the typical home handyman would sneer at.  For this reason the Gun Control Act of 1968 specifically exempted home built firearms, made for personal use, from the law.


So not only do 3D printers have a long way to go to make useable firearms, and because of the requirements for high strength and high temperatures those printers will inevitably be expensive and they will only make what anyone with a hammer, drill and set of files can do now a little bit easier.  The hysteria over printed firearms is just another exercise in ignorance and futility.

M Wagner
M Wagner

It is all very interesting.  My wife recently bought glasses with lenses which were not ground but instead were produced "digitally".  They are the best glasses she has ever owned!  I wonder if they were manufactured by an SLS 3D printer?  With time, I would think that any CAD/CAM file could be sent to a printer and reproduced using whatever materials were available to product either functioning or non-functioning replicas. 


These are not exactly "replicators" from Star Trek but theses consumer "toys" do open some interesting doors. 

th35had0w
th35had0w

I find the term '3D' much over-used, overly simplistic and down-right abused.


On the extreme end, there are now '4D' movies, ( the approximately 100+ year old technology that involves '3D glasses', and occasionally spraying you with water or having perfume released at certain key points ). Alternatively, you could go to even older technology called the 'theater', in person.


3D Sound. Humans only have 2 ears. The technological illusion is created by sending out simultaneous sound waves with varying amplitudes and frequencies and time delays. Alternatively, you go to a concert, in person.


Now the term 3D is being used in relation to 'printers'.


I am no expert in any of these 3 fields by any means, but have at least a basic understanding in all of them.


I look forward to 'actual' experts, or those otherwise knowledgeable in the '3D printing' field, replacing it with something better.

auplater
auplater

Really.... Did this article need to be written? All of these points are obvious to anyone having observed most any new technology coming online with an attention span of greater than 30 minutes or so..... As Seth Meyers would say.... Really!

Of course, there are article quotas and deadlines, and the need to consume bandwidth I guess

briantaylor
briantaylor

Also, competing "maker" technologies often allow use of better materials and are much more accurate with fine detail.  Laser cutters, CNC machines are available in desktop format now, at prices that compete with many 3D printers.  You still have to "do CAD" but at least the result is better, and that part is no worse.


You don't necessarily need to use digital methods and CAD, either.  Heck, if I want to replicate something complex and get great detail and accuracy in the reproduction, a silicone mold will do it, and allows me to select from a whole range of materials with a variety of different properties with regard to strength, flexibility, etc.

Axamit
Axamit

High cost is just a question of time. 3D printing will definitely change the traditional scheme of manufacturing process.

stubbyd
stubbyd

> " which was also the roundabout figure for a top-of-the-line computer in the 1980s"


I'm going to guess the author of this piece is young and hasn't done their research particularly well. The first computer I bought in 1989 was a Compag Deskpro 386/25 and it was top of the range then. The 300Mb hard drive in it alone cost £1,000 (approx US $1600) - the PC itself with hard drive was £4,500 (approx US $7000) - http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/16967/Compaq-Deskpro-386-25-Type-38/ shows the price as being $7,900.


With that inaccuracy my interest in this article ended. 

donw1234
donw1234

@tvmuzik A 3D gun only has to survive one shot.  Durability is not the issue, being invisible to airport scanners is.

richard233
richard233

@jjk308 I guess it all depends on what you consider significant.

If nothing else, automatic weapons are vastly superior to their equivalents 100 years ago.

Consider something like the UZI vs that colt.

As to the 1968 law, home built weapons were likely exempted because such a law might not

pass constitutional muster, given it would limit the channels one could use to acquire  too broadly.

While I can't claim to be an expert, I've talked to enough people to know that we have made some

real advances on the reliability and precision of the guns made now vs the past.

the_tech_mule
the_tech_mule

@th35had0w  I agree with the abuse of the term 3D, but in this case, it's spot on. You are creating a 3D object from a printer. 

the_tech_mule
the_tech_mule

@auplater  I think it's a very useful article. Some people might want to purchase one of the inexpensive printers thinking that it's just going to work. They will be sadly disappointed. At this point, unless you invest thousands in a MakerBot or higher, you are taking on a lot of work yourself and you're not going to get great results. There's a lot of hype around 3D printing.

M Wagner
M Wagner

@auplater Of course it did ... most new technology needs to capture the imagination of the public in order for the industry to go anywhere.  Give it five years and see what 3D printing will be able to do in commercial settings. 

info
info

@stubbyd Two things, 'stubby'. The word 'roundabout', which would mean 'close to', and the fact that computers in North America cost way less than computers in the UK, which I would assume is where you're from given you're thinking in Pounds instead of Dollars...


And with your stuffy, better-than-thou attitude, my interest in your comment ended...

jasonhiner
jasonhiner moderator

@stubbyd  Disagree. That number is pretty accurate. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, $2,000 was the magic number that you had to spend to get a fully-loaded PC. Sure, you could have spent $5K or more if you were totally spendthrift about it, but the average computer buyer was spending about $2K to get a really good machine.

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