When Will 3D Printing Finally Take Off?

In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he lauded 3D printing as having the “potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” 3D printers were going to make the leap from being an industrial-only application that still seemed like a futuristic technology to everyone having a desktop 3D printer in their home. However, the main market for 3D printers has remained industrial, used mostly in prototyping objects and in one-off or limited-run manufacturing.

Poised to be a game-changer, why has 3D printing not yet made the leap? Since 2009, when one of the key patents in fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology expired, there has been an influx of FDM 3D printers on the market, with bigger names such as MakerBot and Formlabs having a large portion of the market share. While the expiration of these patents has certainly democratized access to the machines in the past few years, consumers have still been slow in adopting this technology.

“Most people have a scant idea of what 3D printing really is,” says Ray Doeksen, industrial designer and digital fabricator. “Some people are amazed that it takes a relatively long time to print something, or that [printers] aren’t 100% reliable.” Consumers expected 3D printing to be something like the replicator from Star Trek, but 3D printers do not print anything on demand. “Even if you buy a 3D printer, how do you make it print what you want?” asks Doeksen.

3D printing an object not only requires a 3D printer, it also requires the ability to create an STL file of what you’re looking to print. While there are sites like Thingiverse out there, sometimes the thing that you want to print doesn’t exist as a downloadable file and the vast majority of people don’t know how to use CAD software. The 3D modeling aspect is getting easier and will get easier yet, as there are more affordable tools now that didn’t exist ten years ago such as Autodesk Fusion 360. But being able to use a 3D modeler still comes with a steep learning curve. Another option is to contract it out to someone to model it for you, but that is just another additional cost and takes away from the DIY appeal in printing objects of your own creation.

Even though there are many FDM printers to choose from, the technology is still not mature enough to build a robust part. Says Doeksen, “Consumer FDM printers are essentially still a fancy steampunk glue gun that builds small things out of a stream of melted plastic.” In FDM, each layer has a chance to cool before the next layer is printed on top of it, which causes the part to be extremely weak in the vertically printed direction. The 3D printed version of a part compromises in surface finish, strength, color, and materials in comparison to a production manufactured part.

Credit: Tony Buser/Flickr

3D printers still need to become more reliable in order to become mass market. “FDM printers are limited and limiting in what they can do, and finicky,” says Doeksen.  Maintaining the machine still takes a lot of time and effort – troubleshooting why the printer heads are misaligning or where the filament is getting stuck is often difficult, as diagnostic tools don’t exist in order to determine problems and easily fix issues. Being able to maintain a 3D printer requires the ability to be handy and troubleshoot. “There are two kinds of 3D printer users:  the ones that enjoy tinkering with their printers and the ones that just want to print things,” says Doeksen. We’re still not at the place where a reliable 3D printer exists for the folks who just want to print things and don’t want to spend time and effort into maintaining and troubleshooting their printer.

Ultimately it may not be the leap from industrial to consumer markets that helps 3D printing take off. That leap is more likely lurking inside traditional manufacturing settings — waiting to move beyond prototyping and into production. It’s already gaining ground in applications such as custom medical implants or parts with complex hollow structures that would be impossible or expensive to manufacture using traditional methods, but could be easily done with 3D printing.

These designs require a new generation of design software that require less manual modeling of features and, instead, rely on algorithms that can generate geometry based on the desired properties guided by an engineer. The results look nothing like the solid, prismatic shapes we are accustomed to today. They are truly organic, with internal matrices that provide structure to a hollowed out object and look more like a cross-section of a bone than they do a manufactured product. Or lattices on the surface that promote tissue adhesion for medical implants. Or lightweight parts that used to be made out of solid metal and are now reduced to a network of intersecting members that provide strength only where it’s needed.

There are certainly plenty of technological challenges that need to be overcome for additive manufacturing to truly cross the chasm. In order to become more marketable in the consumer world, the barrier to entry of 3D modelers needs to be lowered and 3D printers need to break less often. For industrial applications, 3D printers need to get faster and the parts they produce need to match or surpass the quality of objects created using traditional manufacturing techniques. And software has to be built that is capable of generating designs that can take full advantage of the benefits that 3D printing has to offer. Ultimately we’ll get there – and as we do we’re sure to learn a great deal about the future of both design and manufacturing.

Brian Sather is a product marketing manager at Autodesk. An engineer by trade, he likes taking things apart and putting them back together. Half the things in his home work twice as well as they should, and the other half don’t work at all.

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