If you’ve been reading our site for longer than a couple of weeks, then you likely have figured out that we are obsessed with 3D printing. Why are we so obsessed with this technology? Because we truly believe that 3D printing will change the world we all live in, mostly for the better, and the quicker this happens the better off we all will be.
Although I, personally, became aware of 3D printing about half a decade ago, I didn’t really understand it or venture to explore the various applications of the technology until only about two years ago. Soon after, we created a forum, 3DPB.com, and months after that launched 3DPrint.com in order to share all the exciting news and projects emerging from this incredible industry.
Over the last year and a half, I have met and spoken to hundreds of incredible individuals and organizations using 3D printing to do amazing things — from 3D printed cars to 3d printed prostheses to 3D printed houses. At the same time I have met even more individuals who are incredibly skeptical of the technology. There are several questions I repeatedly get asked by these skeptics while at trade shows, hanging out with friends and family, or during business meetings. I thought that I could share a few of the more popular questions and comments I receive, along with my usual responses (in more detail).
Question/Comment: Why would I want to buy a 3D printer for around $1,000? After all, there is nothing to print besides trinkets and doodads.
My Response: Sure there are lots of 3D models for trinkets such as key chains, figurines, and toys made available online. Some of the more popular items are used almost as test coupons to analyze and compare one printer versus another. That’s why you often see the same little 3D printed trinkets and doodads in marketing brochures for new machines as well as at trade shows.
The fact is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of useful free 3D printable models available online. When I got married last month I had six friends stay with me from up north. They all believed that my 3D printers were practically worthless. I then brought up Thingiverse on my PC and had them look through some of the more popular models. Within five minutes they were all acting like kids in a candy shop: “Print this!” — “No, print this!” It went on for hours and I believe every one of them is now considering purchasing a printer.
For every worthless trinket there are probably two to three incredibly cool gadgets and functioning parts. We are only a few years into the gradual adoption of consumer level 3D printers. Just imagine how many incredible new applications will emerge over the next 5 years alone. The majority of available models are completely open source, meaning that they can be modified however you’d like and then reuploaded and remodified by others. In essence this means that the hundreds of thousands of designs are gradually evolving, taking on additional superior characteristics over time.
As printer prices continue to decline, new materials become available, and the repositories of 3D printable models grow exponentially, now is the perfect time to purchase and get acquainted with one of these amazing machines.
Question/Comment: Are you kidding me? 3D printed organs, electronics, and livable homes within a decade?
My Response: We are already seeing tremendous progress on all of these fronts. Companies like Organovo are already selling 3D printed human tissue to the pharmaceutical industry for drug toxicity testing. At the same time, the Chinese company WinSun has already 3D printed several structures including homes and apartment buildings, and companies like Voxel8 are advancing printing with electrical components.
As technology advances at an exponential pace, our brains usually envision progress at a linear pace. Over the next couple of years actual progress may follow in the path that we had imagined, but once we hit the knee of the exponential curve, all bets are out the window as advancements in 3D printing as well as a whole slew of other technologies will take place so rapidly that it will become incredibly difficult to predict where we will be in a 7-10 year timeframe. Will 3D printed organs, homes, and electronics be the norm? It’s really impossible to say for sure, but there is little doubt in my mind that all three areas will see substantial advancement in the decade to come.
Question/Comment: 3D printing will ruin capitalism, as intellectual property becomes nonexistent.
First we need a little bit of a history lesson. Do you remember when Napster launched? How about Netflix? These services were certain to kill off the TV and music industries at the time. What ended up happening though? The exact opposite. Both industries are flourishing. While Napster didn’t stick around, iTunes took its place, presenting a new sales channel for the music industry. At the same time, Netflix is one of the fastest growing businesses on the planet, reimagining how we all watch TV.
As technology changes, markets adapt. Intellectual property — i.e., patents — is an important fabric of a capitalistic society. The sharing of patented 3D models for printing is sure to present many challenges in the years to come. With this said, just like Napster was a fluke of a threat to the music industry as new business models emerged, so too will be 3D printing.
Perhaps patent holders and designers will price their work affordably, driving those wishing to print an item to actually pay a small fee for the assurance that they are obeying the law. Services such as 3DSha.re are examples that the iTunes model (charging a very small fee per download) can in fact work with 3D models, attracting designers while still appealing to those in the market for quality models. There will be plenty of legal and political battles in the years ahead, but ultimately capitalism will figure out a solution like it almost always does.
Of course I may be a bit overly optimistic, but what else would you expect? As the next decade chugs along, we will all be watching eagerly as 3D printing, first slowly, then much more rapidly, begins changing the world as we know it from manufacturing to healthcare to education to just about every other industry there is.
Let’s hear your thoughts and feedback on my responses in the 3D Printing Skeptics forum thread on 3DPB.com.