3D Printers: Why Nobody Needs One For Christmas - InformationWeek
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12/10/2014
12:12 PM
Ellis Booker
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3D Printers: Why Nobody Needs One For Christmas

Oh, by gosh, by golly, are you really going to print some mistletoe and holly?

8 Tech Turkeys To Avoid As Gifts
8 Tech Turkeys To Avoid As Gifts
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Are you thinking of buying one of the early technology adopters in your life a 3D printer this year? You'll first want to make some room in their garage beside the Segway, programmable bread machine, and NordicTrack.

3D printing, an admirable industrial technology that's been around since the late 1980s, now wants to be a consumer item -- for all those consumers who need to rapidly prototype their product designs, I guess.

Sensing a market opportunity, a slew of companies have emerged with what they say are consumer-friendly, even "child-friendly," 3D printers. (Read, mechanical engineering degree not required.)

Here's how one press release we received this week characterized the glorious possibilities: "While not quite 'Tea, Earl Grey, Hot,' [our printer] just might be the closest thing on Earth to home-based Star Trek tech."

Right. And those "sea monkeys" I bought with my own money may someday grow into real monkeys.

The Cube 3D printer lists for $999. (Image: Cubify)
The Cube 3D printer lists for $999.
(Image: Cubify)

Even if consumer 3D printers drop massively in price, I don't see the use case. Put another way, how many times does the average family need to manufacture a toilet handle or replicate a beloved plastic toy?

None of this is to say 3D printing is a technological dead-end. Far from it.

3D printer shipments will more than double every year between 2015 and 2018, by which time worldwide shipments are forecast to reach more than 2.3 million, according to a recent market analysis from Gartner. Moreover, Gartner sees big growth in the low end of the market, devices costing less than $1,000. These printers made up 11.6% of the total in 2014, but will grow to 28.1% of the $1-to-$2,500 range by 2018, Gartner said.

When it comes to just-in-time, custom 3D printing, look no farther than the local hospital, where the right part at the right time can literally mean the difference between life and death. Indeed, interesting and important work is ongoing on 3D printers that use biological filament to build three-dimensional objects.

[For more on medical applications of 3D printing, check out InformationWeek's slideshow, 3D Printing Reshapes Healthcare.]

And as space fans probably already know, NASA just last month announced that a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station manufactured the first 3D printed object in space.

As NASA explained in its press release:

"Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working 'machine shop' in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, which will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts."

In other words, the ISS's 3D printer won't be used to produce rubber (okay, plastic) ducks for its Zero-g shower.

What's more obvious to me is the emotional impetus behind consumer interest in 3D printing. And, no, it's not a Trekkie fantasy of owning a food replicator.

Rather, people like to produce things, material things. How else can one explain the profusion of woodworking, knitting, and pottery magazines in 2014? Despite our digital, always-connected lives, it turns out many people still want to get their hands dirty.

But if this urge to make stuff is what's behind consumer fascination with 3D printers, there are far easier and cheaper approaches.

Instead of dropping nearly $1,000 on a 3D printer and accessories, how about gift wrapping some modeling clay or a few woodworking tools? You can even add a subscription to a craft magazine -- the printed kind.

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Ellis Booker has held senior editorial posts at a number of A-list IT publications, including UBM's InternetWeek, Mecklermedia's Web Week, and IDG's Computerworld. At Computerworld, he led Internet and electronic commerce coverage in the early days of the web and was ... View Full Bio
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freespiritny25
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freespiritny25,
User Rank: Ninja
12/31/2014 | 12:01:09 PM
Re: 3d printers are going change the world
I think 3D printers are truly amazing, but I don't think I would actually use it much. I think the novelty would wear off for me but I definitely would love to use it 2 or 3 times.
Mo@TechBox21
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Mo@TechBox21,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2014 | 5:46:11 PM
3d printers are going change the world
While not every home needs a 3d printer....

The home is where most people, essentially, BECOME entrepreneurs

Gone are the days of "I'm gonna go for a walk and think" (If people ever did do that)

Instead we get on out computers (or phones) and start surfing....

or lay in our beds, not sleeping, pondering our passions and ideas 

3d printers are going to change the way people BECOME entrepreneurs
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
12/17/2014 | 3:24:34 AM
Re: 3D printers
It is also a step towards a Gray Goo scenario, where machines self-replicate in an uncontrollable fashion until all the matter available for conversion is exhausted. However, they are a few natural limitations that could stop an uncontrollable replication, even if communication breaks down, for instance, the availability of energy.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
12/12/2014 | 9:11:17 PM
Re: so sad you can't see the potential!
I can see universities taking a huge advantage by allowing students to create their own prototypes using a 3D printer.  As for consumer use, if it can help kids to get interested in engineering and architecture
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
12/12/2014 | 2:30:51 PM
Re: so sad you can't see the potential!
I am very excited about doctors printing items for medical uses. That is quite different from having a 3D printer at home.
mbalzer
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mbalzer,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/12/2014 | 4:19:58 AM
Re: It's not the printer, it's the ink
Hi Ellis,

We at 'All Things 3D' have been covering the 3D design, scanning and fabrication scene for the last year and half and I agree partially in your article, but I wonder how how many hours you have logged doing something using 3D technology?  My co-host Chris Kopack and I both run 3D businesses and have seen the interest and demand increasing, as well as the budgets in the school systems, especially undergraduate schools.  As with 2D printing, cost is initially high and quality was poor -- remember dot matrix printing?  Now you can buy ink jet technology for less than $100 that rivals a photo lab's quality (okay, maybe not), so it is just a matter of time.  Sure it is easy to say you can just buy something cheaper or easier to replace something that is broken, but I deal with many who have a product that is no longer in production, e.g. a vintage car, that a part that has deteriorated and they can no longer find it.  The can bring the part, I can scan it, use a little 3D design to fill in the gaps, and in matter of hours, have a part that allowed this person to continue using the device, car, etc at a cost in their mind, well worth the expense.  And this was done on a Makerbot, MakerGear M2, and Ultimaker 2 in a variety of materials from ABS, Nylon, Elastics, PET, and yes even cornstarch (PLA).  I have even printed my own filling for a cavity that was later used to create a mold, as well as provide a full scale skull based on my wife's CT scans to help in the planning and removal of her golf ball size tumor above the left eye.


It is interesting how you bring up medical uses, which has received a lot of press over the last year, but the reality is that is still a few years off -- this is coming from some of the top bio-engineering researchers in the country.  The tissue and organs you are seeing on TV and in the news are just husk with no way to support themselves since they have no capillary or waste removal system.  Like AI, which was always just around the corner, the same thing holds true here.  But that is not to say, as in AI, we do not have uses for what we created.  Tissue and organ husks/tissue can be used to test drugs without affecting the host, e.g. cancer treatments.

You also mentioned 3D in Space.  Believe it our not, we had a professor on recently who talked about his test (we showed the paper to prove it) that they were already testing all of this in the early 90s on the vomit comet.  I sure hope the company behind this latest 3D venture did not charge NASA for data that was already obtained years ago.

In summary, as digital tools have progressed in changing how we fundamental design in 2D, they have also changed the way design in 3D.  Now we have tools to do our own prototyping (I have a line of products called 4eyes, that have all been designed in Autodesk Fusion 360 and printed on several prosumer 3D printers as "alpha" version, and then on to professional printers from 3DS and Stratasys as my finished product.  Without these tools, I would have had to resort to a machine shop, or spend thousands to do small run of injection molded parts.  Before you become the Grinch who stole X-Mas, how many of those kids who cut their teeth on the Commodore 64 helped land a spacecraft on mars, or more recently a comet?

You can find out more about 3D by following us at allthings3d dot net, or join us today at 9:30 a.m. PST on our Google+ page 'All Things 3D'
ihatethis
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ihatethis,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2014 | 4:57:15 PM
so sad you can't see the potential!
It's so surprising to me that so many people think this is a fad with no benefit. Do you really think that 3d printed prosthetics that are beingade for practically pennies would of been created without dirt cheap 3dprinters? The printrbot at $400 is a great deal for anyone who wants to expand their creative abilities. The more people with them the better. There are so many potential uses, custom case's for products without official case's (like the raspberry pi), custom gaming controllers for the disabling, cases for cell phones (since they only make decent ones for iPhone and Galaxy s), fixing broken products by printing exact copies, modifications to existing products for ease of use or adding features, custom mounting brackets, dishware (with the proper filament of course). There are millions of possibilities, just think of a car. The shift knob, trim, badges, mounting brackets, door handle, lenses for blinkers, blinker handles and knods, buttons, mounts for cell phones, car radio fit adapter's. Then there are unique inventions. I personally can't wait to see what these young (or old) minds can create, there have been so many breakthroughs already ( there printing organs for gods' sake, soon waiting for donors with a perfect match will be over), so why wound you want this available to as many people as possible?
fredatiweek
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fredatiweek,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2014 | 10:42:23 AM
Re: 3D printers
3D printing in space is the first step toward the self replicating machine, a concept in science and science fiction where you have a machine that can make anything, using the raw materials at hand. To build a moonbase or colony on Mars, you'd have to have something like this because you cannot transport everything you need.
fredatiweek
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fredatiweek,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/11/2014 | 10:34:29 AM
Re: niche uses
The train hobby was a wide range people, in terms of what people spend annually. In a hobby where you can spend $1500 on a high end train, it's not a hard leap to consider a 3D printer. I think the initial foray into that space is producing spare parts otherwise difficult to find, and then reproductions of out-of-print kits, and completely custom, new models. There are sites out there that offer spare parts, so I don't think 3D printing competes with that necessarily. I think what 3D printing brings to the average hobbyist is an environment and potential that's analogous to the retired machinist who builds his own working model steam engine. It's complete control over fabrication and reproduction.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
12/11/2014 | 10:16:23 AM
Re: niche uses
@fred that is an interesting example. I would guess small websites offer the train parts now? I would think that buying from such a site makes economic sense compared to buying a  printer. But maybe the printers create competition in the market....
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