If you’ve spent a long time working with 3D printing, whether at a hobbyist or professional level, you may tend to forget that there are still many people who don’t know much or anything about the technology. It becomes second nature to those of us who encounter it every day – I know I’m still startled when someone asks me how 3D printing works, or whether I can 3D print them a pizza, or how on earth people can possibly print human tissue/jet engines/etc. There are a lot of misconceptions about 3D printing, and we thought we’d address a few of them here, for those who may be unfamiliar with the technology or need a refresher.
3D printing is magic!
Sadly, 3D printing is not magic, and anyone who starts their 3D print expecting wondrous things to emerge from thin air will quickly find themselves feeling like a first-year Hogwarts student in a Potions class. Sure, it looks cool and magical, and there are times when prints come out so easily and perfectly that the process does seem like sorcery. There are plenty of times, however, that your perfect-on-the-screen model comes out as a ball of plastic string, or a melted-looking blob, or any number of other fascinating but very wrong shapes.
Does this mean you’re terrible at 3D printing, and should give up right now? Of course not. Even the most skilled professionals end up with failed prints, and the causes range from damp filament to a not-sticky-enough build surface to a tiny flaw in the model to a printer that’s just being really, really crabby for no good reason.
Many people also believe that once a 3D printer spits out a model, your work is done. Some printers boast such smooth, flawless prints that they require no post-processing, but for the most part, you’re likely going to have some work to do after your print comes off the build platform. Supports are an evil but necessary part of 3D printing, and removing them can take longer than the print itself. You’re going to need tools, like sandpaper, scrapers, knives, and sometimes noxious solutions to aid in getting those supports off – and then you’ll likely need to do even more sanding if you want a perfectly smooth print.
3D printing is only good for making little plastic trinkets that sit on shelves.That’s one of the misconceptions I hear most often, and it’s an understandable belief – the Internet is packed with 3D printed plastic nonsense, as well as very cool plastic things that regardless don’t end up serving much more purpose than looking cool on a shelf. But there’s so much more that 3D printing can do. I’ve met people who are surprised to learn that you can 3D print with metal, and even more surprised to learn that you can 3D print human and animal tissue. Here are just a few of the things that 3D printing is capable of:
- Creating liver tissue for pharmaceutical testing and eventually implantation (that’s the hope, anyway)
- Building a rocket engine
- Helping visually impaired people to read
- Building cars
- Building houses
- Creating astonishing art
- Making plastic trinkets – because even if it just sits on a shelf, it still looks cool sitting on a shelf.
3D printing is going to take over manufacturing!On the flip side, another common misconception is that 3D printers can print anything you could possibly think of – and the hype around the technology can make it seem that way. That’s currently untrue, and unlikely to come true in the future. We print plenty of case studies in which manufacturers rave about additive manufacturing and how it’s changed their production methods and saved them time and money. That’s true – but if you look more closely, they’re usually talking about prototyping.
Prototyping parts can be one of the most time-consuming stages of manufacturing; typically, manufacturers have to design a part, send it off to a third party to produce, and wait for it to be sent back – a process that can take weeks. Then, if the part needs modifications, the whole cycle starts again. With a 3D printer, companies can design a part in CAD software, print it out in a matter of hours, and often test it the same day. Then if it needs changes, they can modify the digital model, print it out again, and continue until the part has been perfected, for no more cost than the price of filament.
Thanks to companies like Carbon, Rize, and others that have been developing more advanced materials for 3D printing, the production of functional, end-use parts is starting to become feasible, but we won’t likely ever get to the point where the technology will be used for mass production – 3D printing just isn’t as fast or cost-efficient as methods like injection molding. For small-batch or limited production, however, manufacturers are starting to look seriously at 3D printing as a viable alternative.
3D printers are too expensive.
That depends on the kind of printer you’re looking at. A lot of them, yes, are priced in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars – if you want to build a business around 3D printing, then a more expensive model is worth the investment, but if you just want to learn how to 3D print and make some things for around the house? There are 3D printers out there that cost less than a new laptop – like the under-$300 da Vinci Mini from XYZprinting, for example, or the M3D Micro. Can you 3D print a jet engine on those? No – but for hobbyists or would-be hobbyists, there are printers out there to fit almost every budget.
You can’t 3D print me a pizza, can you?
No, I can’t, and neither can you, probably. And until recently, the answer would have been a flat-out “no.” No, you can’t press a button and have a fully-cooked pizza pop out at you (see: 3D printing is not magic, above) – but companies like BeeHex are hard at work in 3D printing the perfect pizza. We visited their R&D facility last week, and while they can’t 3D print fresh meat and vegetables (see: 3D printing is not magic, above) the rest of the pie is extruded by their soon-to-soft-launch food printers. From what we’ve heard, they’re pretty delicious, too.
Most food printers are novelty purposes at the moment – making candy in the shape of your face, for example. But in addition to BeeHex, many companies are exploring the more serious benefits of 3D food printing, such as helping restaurants more easily cater to the needs of people with dietary restrictions, and others have theorized that the technology could be used to solve problems of food shortages in the future. Food printing is one of the most interesting trends to follow, because many people still think it’s laughable – but it’s starting to become serious business.
Those are just a few of the misconceptions surrounding 3D printing – it’s not quite the magical technology it’s hyped as being, but it can still do a lot more than many people imagine. It’s a fast-changing technology, though, one that consistently surprises us, so who knows – there may yet come a time in which some of these misconceptions become true and you can conjure up anything you want – like some tea. Earl Grey. Hot. Discuss in the 3D Printing Misconceptions forum at 3DPB.com.