What are the various factors still holding back 3D printing

Every now and then, we get to see news about 3D printing and how it is revolutionizing the whole manufacturing industry. There is absolutely no doubt in the fact that 3D printing is going to completely transform the way we manufacture, transport and replace goods and in the process will disrupt almost all major industries. But how are we going to reach that stage remains a question. The technology is still geared towards passionate, motivated makers and hobbyists. Read on to find out various blocking factors holding back 3D printing. Do note that it is just a matter of time before these roadblocks are removed bringing 3D printing into the main stream.

1. Prices of 3D printers

Price is one major factor that is constraining the wide-spread adoption of 3D printers in the consumer market. Currently, good quality printers cost anywhere above $2000 and printers less than $1000 use a DIY-style kit that requires assembly of machine which average consumers might not be interested in. Also, these printers don’t replicate the CAD designs accurately. Though there are many new low cost printers coming into the market, these printers have limited options and can’t print high-quality products. Once a good quality 3D printer reaches sub $500 price range, then the whole industry takes off in a big way. It takes few more years before the prices reach that point.

2. SLS printers are still very expensive

There are two famous 3D printing technologies in the market currently. One is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and the other one is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). FDM uses plastic as the raw material. When the patents on FDM printers expired, there was a huge growth of open source FDM printers that led to this current moment in 3D printing. But FDM has a major limitation as it can only use Plastic as a raw material which isn’t that sturdy.

SLS printing technology uses more materials such as glass, metal, plastic and ceramic. The price of SLS printers reach as high as $250,000. But major patents on Selective Layer Sintering (SLS) printers expired in January 2014. So, the prices of these machines may come down in future. But it takes few more years before the prices reach sub $500 price range.

3. Legal issues and Patents

Many patents on 3D printers will expire this year bringing down the prices of 3D printers. However, there is still lot of confusion over patents as there are few overlapping patents still active. But a bigger issue will be copyright infringement. It is very easy to create a 3D model of an existing copyrighted design and print the 3D object. So, definitely there will be lawsuits and competition between brands over knockoffs and copyright infringement.

4. Utility factor of 3D printing

So far, 3D printing is being used for printing objects like iPhone cases, gifts, novelties. There is no compelling application currently for a 3d printer. Ones that can be printed are low end novelties. These aren’t exactly impactful on our everyday lives nor are they convincing consumers the machines are a worthy investment. One can see some compelling consumer applications some time in 2016. That is when customers would purchase the devices.

5. Plastic filament isn’t sturdy enough

FDM is the most accessible and also the cheapest 3D printers available in the market as of date. These use PLA and ABS plastics for printing the objects. However, the plastic isn’t sturdy and not many household products with moving parts can be created from the material. Printers should use carbon composites or metals to become more useful to the average consumer as well as manufacturer.

6. That 3D-printed gun

Any technological evolution brings up both good and bad aspects along with it. Even before majority of people could really understand 3D printing, a man named Cody Wilson 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

Printing a 3D object isn’t as simple as right click and print. There are various intermediate steps like creation of STL from CAD model, ensure that the STL is correct and so on. This whole process takes quite some time and one need bit of patience and time to get the final output. This 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.

Hundreds of entrepreneurs and scientists across the world are working hard to remove these roadblocks to bring 3D printing into the main stream. We believe it is a matter of time before 3D printing becomes pervasive


Image Credit : toffehoff (flickr handle: toffehoff)

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