3D printing: Is it overhyped?

It been almost 31years, since Charles Hull had invented 3D printing, it’s travelled a very long and tedious journey. This journey should be much appreciated, as the application of 3D printing has tactfully captured almost all the sectors: jewelry, healthcare, homes, food, and human tissue. Meanwhile, the price of consumer 3D printers has come down considerably and the machine which was all set to rock the manufacturing industry has now crept into the houses of millions. The usage of 3D printers in the household is still in the initial stages as people are still quite skeptical about the durability and affordability of the machine as well as the end product. In this direction, an office-supply retailer named Staples opened “experience centres” in Los Angeles and New York City, where consumers can try out the printers before buying them. The potential of 3D printers was rightfully described by the US President Barack Obama in the 2013 State of the Union as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we do almost everything.”

With all this 3D printing has become the hottest thing in the technology industry — following mobility and competing with connected cars and wearable technology, the nuts and bolts of 3D printing have been around for decades. However, patent issues, the restriction on materials and the high priced printers have restricted the technology firmly within manufacturing for years. But with recent developments in the 3D printing and many patents expiring in a few years the prices of the printers have reduced considerably enabling the household consumers to buy the printers. But there are a few constraints that are restricting people to buy one of the affordable 3D printers.

  • They are too hard to use. The biggest problem with 3D printers is that they are not at all user friendly. The level of difficulty in using them could be described as using MS-DOS back in 1987. Unless you are well aware of certain basic tech knowledge, it’s quite a difficult area to venture into.
  • There are many things that cannot be printed. The main problem lies that the object that you want to print, you should firstly have a blue print in the form of STL file or a 3D plan of the object. If you don’t have the blue print then you’ll have to do it from the scratch that involves a lot of Photoshop and computer aided design (CAD).
  • Useful things cannot be mass printed; mostly things that are produced are proto-types or toys and cannot be used for some useful purposes.
  • There are a lot of legal hurdles. There will be a lot of legal issues, especially those related to intellectual rights.
  • The plastic that is used for the printing process is very expensive. Some of the plastics used in the printers are not very safe. So 3D printed spoons and plates cannot be actually used for eating purposes. Majority of the consumer level 3D printers can only print in one material –plastic, and most probably in one colour. So, there’s still a long way to go.

So now the question stands, is there no revolution with 3D printing?

Yes, there is certainly a thin air of revolution with 3D printing but the expectation of the people is sky high and the printer cannot meet the expectation of the people immediately. The rightful application of this technology can grow in areas like the prototyping market, low-volume productions runs, medical, aerospace and others. On a professional level, 3D printing is very cost-effective option for the manufacturing sector. But the actual break-through in 3D printing industry will take place soon, with more patents set to expire.The technology has applications in the healthcare, construction and manufacturing, but is unlikely to be suitable as a household product beyond small, novelty printers which may be fun to print out doorknobs, hooks and other house hold items, gifts or designs, but no more than that. 3D printing will have limited use in the consumer sector.

Many experts in the 3D printing sector feel that the practicality of the technology is being overshadowed by the actual potential of the machine. In this competitive world even technology changes with every passing day, in this process some technology leaves its mark and some do not. The consumers of the 21st century have become very smart and for any technology to leave a deep impact will have to capture their realm as well as have an application that can be levied at home and businesses. 3D printing is exciting and interesting, at present doesn’t seem to fulfill this role, as it will be a luxury rather than a necessity.

The importance of 3D printing cannot be side tracked but labeling it as “revolutionary” is all due to the technology being in the ‘hype’ stage, but eventually the technology will find its rightful place in the manufacturing, supply chains industry and creation of prosthetics in the healthcare sector. Terming 3D printing as ‘revolutionary’ would mean to analyze the market spread of the product as well as the cost of the product. Mobiles as well as computers can be termed as revolutionary because of the wide usage of the products and the costs of the products have become so cheap that they can be bought by anyone. For 3D printer to reach the zenith of technology, it will take a lot of time and a lot of changes in the technology level of the printer. So, are 3D printers valuable? Absolutely yes, they are! But are they revolutionary? Not currently, but will reach there in coming years!

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