Jan 04 2016

The Coming 3-D Printer Revolution

3d-printerI am a technophile, so I follow new and emerging technologies pretty closely. I am also an occasional early adopter, as much as my finances allow, which is not anywhere close to what I would like. Often I must wait for a new technology to come down in price to the consumer level, or at least the “prosumer” level.

Over the last couple of years I have had my eye on 3-D printers. This is an extremely promising technology, often referred to as additive manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing methods start with a block of material and then take away material to create the shape, or they use some kind of mold, or they hammer, pull, bend, or press material into shape. 

Additive manufacturing adds material to “print” the desired object in three dimensions. The huge advantage here is that the process allows for open-ended computer-controlled creation. If you have a design of an object on your computer, the 3-D printer can make it.

Where is 3-D Printing Now?

Right now I would say we are in the early adopter/professional phase of 3-D printing technology. However, we are right on the brink of widespread consumer adoption. One rule of thumb is that the price break for an appliance to be considered at the widespread consumer adoption level is $1,000 (this, of course, depends on utility and necessity). We saw this with digital cameras, laser printers, DVD and then Blu-Ray players, and flat-screen TVs.

Already 3-D printers have fallen below the magical $1,000 mark. Here is a Maker 3-D printer for $300. Better prosumer level printers are in the $3-5k level, and you can spend over $6k on a professional printer.

The variables to consider are this: the build size (how large an object can the printer create?), the material used, and the resolution. Speed is also an issue, as it can take hours to create a single item, but unless you are producing a lot of items this is not a huge concern. There are, of course, also the generic quality concerns, like reliability, lifespan, support, ease of use, etc.

Right now there are printers that can use plastic, resin, or even metal. There are also printers that use ceramics, but these will likely remain in the realm of professional use because they require the end product to be heated to high temperatures to fuse the ceramic particles and melt away the binding resin.

There is a new proposed technique that prints using a pre-ceramic plastic that is then heated to 1,000 degrees C to form a high quality ceramic.

The price and quality of objects created are now sufficient, in my opinion, for widespread adoption. So why wasn’t a cheap 3-D printer the hot holiday gift of 2015? What is holding back widespread consumer adoption? I think right now the 3-D printer is missing the killer app.

Printers are used now by those who need to make prototypes, or who need one-off specialty items (like a specific part to a vintage car). Companies that need such parts can create them faster and cheaper in-house with a professional printer. Meanwhile early adopters are playing around with the printers, seeing what they can do.

Why, however, would the average consumer want to have one in their house as a serious appliance? Until there is a good answer to that question I don’t think we will see a 3-D printer in every home.

The Future of 3-D Printing

It is not difficult to imagine, however, how 3-D printers can become as common as microwave ovens. Imagining is easy – predicting is more difficult. The microwave oven is a great example – it was developed as a cooking appliance, a task at which it utterly failed. It became indispensable as a heating appliance, however.

Smart phones are perhaps another illustrative example. They were hitting the market for a few years before they took off, which resulted more from the existence of an app store than advances in the technology itself.

We can look at the 3-D printer from two perspectives, the technology itself and the potential applications. The technology is advancing nicely. This advancement includes better resolution, a greater variety of materials, and tougher and therefore more versatile end-products. Three-D printing will also benefit from advances in computers and software.

How would the average consumer use their 3-D printer? One problem for widespread adoption is that for most common objects it is cheap and easy to buy them at the local store, or even to have them delivered to your home. Aside from the novelty, what is the advantage of printing an object yourself?

The big advantage as I see it is customization and personalization. If you could design the object from potentially millions of options, that would be something not currently available at WalMart. You could also easily add your own personalized designs or elements.

Another use is printing replacement parts. Most people have had the experience of having one small plastic piece on an appliance break, essentially ruining the appliance. Often you cannot buy just that one piece. The company would rather sell you a new appliance.

What if, however, you could go to the company website, download the specs for that one piece, and then print a replacement yourself at home – appliance fixed.

These applications involve using 3-D printers to accomplish existing tasks. The real killer apps will come, however, when people figure out how to use home 3-D printers in ways not currently available.

In other words, when appliances and devices are designed and optimized for the home 3-D printer, the printer will really come into its own. For example, imagine if an appliance were designed to incorporate components made from available 3-D printers, allowing for a wide range of customization. Along with the appliance you would get custom software that walked the consumer through designing and printing their custom options.

Another type of application is unleashing individual creativity. Everyone could become a sculptor, using software to design their artistic objects, and then printing them in the desired medium. The ability to virtually create something, and then have it as a real 3-D object, could become addictive.

We may get to the point that custom 3-D software is as common as a company website, or smartphone app. Imagine if the marketing hype surrounding the recent release of Star Wars Episode VII included software that allowed you to design and then print your own custom blaster or light saber. Design and print your own Harry Potter wand.


The 3-D printing technology is already here. There are cheap consumer level printers, more robust prosumer printers, and high-end professional printers, mirroring many technologies currently in widespread use.

Applications are lagging a bit behind the technology itself, but they will come. It is possible that in the near future some company will combine a consumer-level decent quality 3-D printer with a killer application, and then we will see an explosion of adoption. Three-D printers will become like drones were this year, or like smart phones were after the iPhone came out. They will be the holiday gift everyone wants.

27 responses so far

27 Responses to “The Coming 3-D Printer Revolution”

  1. mlegoweron 04 Jan 2016 at 9:49 am

    “The microwave oven is a great example – it was developed as a cooking appliance, a task at which it utterly failed. It became indispensable as a heating appliance, however.”


  2. dampes8non 04 Jan 2016 at 10:15 am

    You’re spot on when it comes to customization. Those of us in the tabletop RPG camp have been eagerly awaiting a time when we can print character and monster minis for the same price as buying one that’s premade or customizing them by hand. We are almost there. We have HeroForge now.

    I highly recommend you check them out, even if you have no interest in tabletop RPGs. They combine an MMO style character creator with Shapeways to enable entirely custom player minis in the $20-30 range, which when you consider what custom minis cost in dollars and hours if you’re kit-bashing your own out of parts is pretty reasonable.

  3. Fair Persuasionon 04 Jan 2016 at 11:56 am

    I must admit I am fascinated by these printers and waste time admiring the printing process at the hardware stores. For a interesting viewing of making of parts, I suggest the DVDs by Jeffrey Dunham, comedian who shows how to create puppetry.

  4. Heptronon 04 Jan 2016 at 12:37 pm

    “Often you cannot buy just that one piece. The company would rather sell you a new appliance.

    What if, however, you could go to the company website, download the specs for that one piece, and then print a replacement yourself at home – appliance fixed.”

    If a company would rather not sell you an individual part, would they really make the 3D printer specs for parts readily available?
    I feel like, at least for the replacement parts angle, a 3D scanner would also be required by the consumer to gather the specs.

  5. Steven Novellaon 04 Jan 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Heptron – maybe. It depends on whether or not this becomes an expected service, or perhaps a marketing angle. Buy our blender because we will give you the specs for the printable replacement parts.

    Another possibility is that there will be open-source sites that crowdsource specs for every conceivable printable part.

  6. pdeboeron 04 Jan 2016 at 2:40 pm


    “digital cameras, laser printers, DVD and then Blu-Ray players, and flat-screen TVs.”

    All these things are great tools, but on a consumer level are for entertainment purposes(not really laser printers…). Same goes for smart phones. PDAs are useful but the iPhone is fun.

    I expect the killer app necessary for 3D printers will be in entertainment.

    Nintendo should get on that. They’ve had a lot of trouble supplying those Amibo toys. Push production to the consumer and be done with it. They could ship Amibo bases and they could be reuseable. You could even get your Mii made!

  7. jwadamsonon 04 Jan 2016 at 2:47 pm

    “The microwave oven is a great example – it was developed as a cooking appliance, a task at which it utterly failed. It became indispensable as a heating appliance, however.”

    This statement confuses me.

    define: mi·cro·wave ov·en – an oven that uses microwaves to *cook or heat* food.
    define: cook·ing – the practice or skill of preparing food by combining, mixing, and *heating* ingredients.

    If people more frequently had to mix the items before putting them into microwaves, would it have been a successful “cooking” appliance? When I use my toaster-oven to make an ego, am I cooking or heating? Is this just a semantic argument to stretch for a point?

    If you wish to make some nuanced distinction between cooking and heating that diverges from the most common definitions I would appreciate a more thorough description that may convince me heating is not a subset of cooking.

  8. mlegoweron 04 Jan 2016 at 3:11 pm

    “The microwave oven is a great example – it was developed as a cooking appliance, a task at which it utterly failed. It became indispensable as a heating appliance, however.”

  9. Steven Novellaon 04 Jan 2016 at 3:14 pm

    heating and cooking are very different.

    Put raw chicken into a microwave and cook it until the proteins are denatured. That chicken will taste awful.

    However, you can put leftover chicken that is already cooked into the microwave to heat it up and that chicken tastes fine.

    Generally speaking, people use microwaves to heat food that is already cooked, to heat water, or to pop popcorn. However, they don’t use it to cook food, because microwave cooked food tastes terrible.

  10. Steven Novellaon 04 Jan 2016 at 3:18 pm

    pdeboer – I think you are oversimplifying. DVDs and Blu Rays are for entertainment, yest. Smart phones have multiple uses – entertainment, navigation, communication, recording, etc. I also don’t think it’s accurate to say cameras are solely for entertainment. They can be used for many practical purposes.

    As I wrote above, I do think that entertainment can be one killer app for 3-D printers, but I don’t think that is the only one that can cause them to take off.

    The marketplace will explore possible applications, and we’ll just have to see which ones are hot.

  11. Sylakon 04 Jan 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Those printer are really cool. But you are right. Making a part require CAD skills and nearly engineering skills too. But some part are already available and 3D scanner too ( although those are expensive). Roccat, a German gaming peripherals company ( I have one of their mouse the Tyon), make a customizable mouse, you can buy schematic for the side button and 3D print those and fit them of the mouse. It’s not the one I owned. I think they should give the schematic to Roccat mouse owners, te mouse itself is already in the hundreds dollars. Still, the idea is pretty cool.

    A guy I use to work with as a open source one, the one that can’t self replicate at 40% ( there’s metal and electronic part it can’t print of course). He is a DIY guy ( with his health too, he sell woo, but that’s another story). He use it to make custom part for his motorcycle, tools, attach for bags etc. Pretty cool.

  12. BBBlueon 04 Jan 2016 at 11:55 pm

    I banged out papers as an undergrad on a typewriter, and on a CP/M machine using Word Star as a grad student. The advance of this technology feels similar.

    I dabble in 3D CAD and have been working with companies who do prototyping with 3D printing and CNC machines for small projects. Send them a file and they send you a prototype. Really awesome compared to what it used to take to do that sort of thing.

    The library of 3D parts available to the public is increasing at a steady rate. One does not have to be an engineer to do simple projects, they just have to understand the process. If you can master Photoshop, you can master Solidworks. Download an open-source part as a starting point and tweak it from there or start from scratch. Send it off to someone with a state-of-the-art machine and wait for your part in the mail. Before too long, Kinkos, I mean FedEx Office, will be doing 3D printing and prototyping, if they are not already. Small machine shops will become part of the process rather than the whole process, and machinists will become rare and valued artisans.

    This is the sort of tech that simmers for a while without anyone noticing, and then all of a sudden, it becomes a tool we can’t imagine having lived without.

  13. Charonon 05 Jan 2016 at 12:02 am

    @ Steve: “I also don’t think it’s accurate to say cameras are solely for entertainment. They can be used for many practical purposes.”

    I think it is accurate to say entertainment (broadly speaking) is why many of these things took off, though. Astronomers were using CCD cameras in the 1980s because they’re way better for astronomical purposes. But CCD cameras didn’t really take off until they were in a form that people could use for what most people use cameras for – holiday pics, family photos, funny pics, selfies – in other words, entertainment. Perhaps “recreational” is a better term.

    Sure, there are products that take off because they’re useful for business or our everyday lives, but they’re rarer. And even then, that’s not always where the real money is. Compare the Blackberry (was adopted by many businesses) to the iPhone (with myriad recreational uses). Until devices feel necessary (like the refrigerator), they’re going to attract mostly recreational dollars (like smartphones today).

  14. Gotchayeon 05 Jan 2016 at 12:46 am

    I’m not sure the applications you’re envisioning are likely to give every home a reason to have a 3D printer even if 3D printing eventually becomes a significant thing (and I think it will).

    The basic problem for putting a 3D printer in every home is that that ecosystem is competing with Uber-ized 3D printing. Granting that I occasionally want to 3D print something, do I really need to own a 3D printer? Why not just go to Amazon, point them to the link on the manufacturer’s website for whatever plastic doohickey I want printed, and then have them print it at one of their warehouses and deliver it in one or two days (or within hours if I’m in a hurry)? They’ll have a better printer than I can afford (plus they can print in a variety of materials) and if I’m only printing a couple things a year it seems silly to drop hundreds of dollars on one (and then have to worry about keeping it stocked with printer goo, etc.).

    Sure, maybe they’re a hot Christmas present one year, but it seems to me that people need to want to use their printer weekly or maybe even daily before they have a huge impact on our lives outside of invisibly increasing the variety of what you can buy in stores and before a majority of households would want to own one.

  15. Gabor Hraskoon 05 Jan 2016 at 2:47 am

    Just some days ago I become excited about 3D printing when I watched this video about printing my own digital sundial:

    The complete design can be found here with tons of other funny, interesting and perhaps useful stuff:

  16. Steven Novellaon 05 Jan 2016 at 7:08 am

    I agree that there will be a phase where most people use 3-D printing services. This is similar to photo-printing – going to a big store with your flash drive and printing photos off their professional printer and paying per print.

    However, as the technology advances at some point it becomes affordable and convenient to have one in the home.

  17. SteveAon 05 Jan 2016 at 7:09 am

    Gotchaye: “Granting that I occasionally want to 3D print something, do I really need to own a 3D printer?”

    Absolutely. I have enough stuffing up my tool shed as it is, but I’d love a service where I could post a 3D-printing facility my broken oven knob and have them make me a new one. I can’t buy a new one, because they’re no longer made (so the manufacturer tells me).

    A third-party manufacturer might also have access to be better grades of materials. For example, in the example above I’d need a product that was moderately heat-resistant.

  18. carbonUniton 05 Jan 2016 at 8:59 am

    I think the thing that is glossed over is that products are made of many types of materials depending on application. The plastic that most printers seem to use does not look to be terribly strong or have much wear resistance. Good luck printing that replacement cog or sprocket for the weed whacker. Do they make strong nylon parts yet? What about metal? If they can print conductive traces, then maybe they will be able to make circuit boards/electronics. The requirements for various materials would seem to need rather different printing technologies. Not likely to be in a single printer, at least at first. Until home 3-D printers can handle a wide variety of materials, I suspect that they will be somewhat of a niche product. It will make more sense to go down to the local 3-D print shop and make your part or order a ‘printout’ online, using a printer for the material needed. Copyright issues should be interesting…

    That said, when 3-D printing moves further along, it will be tremendously disruptive, with a strong impact on manufacturing and product sales. Imagine first an appliance or auto parts store or general hardware store. Instead of having a large inventory, they might stock only high demand items and items not suited to 3-D printing. The rest could be produced on demand. As the tech matures, manufacture of small implements will move to home printing, reducing the need for factories and sales outlets. The ability to create replacement parts will also cut into sales of new things. I’m happy about this though. Much less waste of perfectly good items that just need a single part fixed.

    It’s interesting to watch the printing industry develop specs and protocols for 3-D. I understand that 3-D extensions are being added to the PDF format.

  19. Pete Aon 05 Jan 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Music CDs went through a stage of being in-store ‘printed-on-demand’ (using recordable CD media) instead of being mass-produced; the music industry later adopted the ‘pay per download’ principle. Printed copies of many books are now printed-on-demand rather than mass-produced. 3-D printing is, I think, the obvious modern extension of the practices.

    Regarding microwave ovens… The penetration depth into food of the 2–3 GHz band microwave ovens is circa 1–1.5 inches, therefore they are totally unsuitable for defrosting or cooking large items of food quickly, e.g., whole chickens and turkeys. The much more expensive to produce shortwave ovens (that operate in the tens to hundreds of MHz region) have a much greater penetration depth into food, which is why such ovens are used in professional catering. The main reason that many food items cooked in all RF ovens taste bland is because the outer surface of the food doesn’t get hot enough to produce Maillard reactions (their rapid onset occurs in the region of 140 to 165 °C). However, some high-fat foods, such as rashers of bacon, do indeed undergo Maillard reactions when cooked in a microwave oven; whereas an omelette will likely explode before the point of undergoing Maillard reactions. There’s a very good reason why the door catch on a microwave oven is fitted with a strong spring!

    What I would like is a device that can print a steak, cooked to perfection, plus a serving of fries and a nutritious salad, all within less than an hour. Hopefully, it will also be able to print some tasty beer or lager to accompany the dinner.

  20. Damloweton 05 Jan 2016 at 1:37 pm

    I can understand why a large group of people think that 3d printing won’t be a device needed in the average home, but if you view it to the precursor to a replicator, then its application will become ubiquitous in a future incarnation.


  21. BBBlueon 05 Jan 2016 at 2:03 pm

    However, as the technology advances at some point it becomes affordable and convenient to have one in the home.

    No doubt for many consumer goods, hobbyists, and DIYers. Of course, tiers of 3D printers will continue to grow just like there are now for many other things like cameras; consumer versions, prosumer versions, industrial versions, and super high-tech versions using exotic materials. Very exciting tech providing a wonderfully creative tool to the masses.

  22. Gotchayeon 05 Jan 2016 at 2:17 pm

    “However, as the technology advances at some point it becomes affordable and convenient to have one in the home.”

    I don’t know that this is inevitable. Like, look at 2D printers. Nobody owns one of those anymore. The rate of car ownership is declining too, I believe – young people are much less likely to buy cars than their parents were. It is possible for there to be a mature technology that everybody sees the value of for individual use but where sharing a few devices across many people makes more sense than individual ownership.

    Obviously what changed with 2D printers is that people now need to print much less often. Do people really need to 3D print more than we now need to 2D print?

    A bunch of things are going on with cars, but part of it is that software and the internet have made it very easy to get a ride when you need a ride, even when you don’t own a car and even if you’re somewhere where you can’t rely on flagging down a taxi driving by.

    We’re getting better at sharing access to one device just as we’re getting better at everything else. This is an especially appealing way to use devices that people don’t need very often. I’m not saying this is definitely the way it’s going to go, but it wouldn’t surprise me if 3D printers just never become a standard household appliance.

  23. cloudskimmeron 05 Jan 2016 at 2:52 pm

    This story about using 3D printers to make cheap prosthetics for children is an ideal use of the technology. Kids grow so fast that they generally don’t get $40,000 prosthetic arms, and the fact that people exploring the new technology provide them for free is heartwarming.

    While appliances do sometime break due to an irreplaceable simple plastic part, my own experience is that the part that breaks is more than just a hunk of plastic; it has a rheostat in it or something similar. Curse lack of standardization that makes me toss a clothes dryer just because some electronic chip fails and cannot be replaced. I think 3D printers will be used more by hobbyists and artists to create cool looking stuff like sci fi blasters and phasers, stuff that will eventually end up in landfills. Instead of working with plastics it’d be a boon to the environment if the material used would biodegrade in a few years, rather than clogging the oceans with more plastic.

  24. RCon 06 Jan 2016 at 12:35 am

    “However, they don’t use it to cook food, because microwave cooked food tastes terrible.”

    Microwave cooked food only tastes terrible if you don’t know how to use a microwave. If you don’t regularly use the heat/power controls, you’re not using it correctly. Most people don’t.


    Nobody owns a 2D printer? I literally do not know a single person who doesn’t own a printer.

    I’d love a 3D printer – and one that can do metal would be a dream – I do a lot of work on older farm/garden equipment, and I like fixing things. I hate throwing something out that has a broken 30 cent part – and being able to fix that stuff would be awesome.

  25. mlegoweron 06 Jan 2016 at 12:16 pm

    “Microwave cooked food only tastes terrible if you don’t know how to use a microwave. If you don’t regularly use the heat/power controls, you’re not using it correctly. Most people don’t.”

    Right. Some things are best prepared (from raw, i.e. cooked) in a microwave. I would agree that the most widespread consumer usage is heating, but it’s also a very effective cooking appliance for certain applications. Obviously if you were going to have just one cooking appliance, you would probably opt for a stovetop, but microwave has to be #3 behind stovetop and oven. Maybe #4 behind stove, oven, and grill. Some people may even place it ahead of those things because of convenience.

  26. BBBlueon 06 Jan 2016 at 1:09 pm

    “…but it wouldn’t surprise me if 3D printers just never become a standard household appliance.”

    We will see, but among other uses, it wouldn’t surprise me if consumer-level 3D printers become the sort of thing every parents feel obligated to buy their little darlings to encourage their artistic potential…and then most of them will proceed to make the same bowl they made in art class out of clay.

    Right now, I can’t think of anything that would justify even several hundred dollars for a small 3D printer for personal use, however, that could change if something similar to an app store or an open source repository were developed with massive content of things I and everyone else didn’t know we needed until it became available, and then we can’t live without them. Sort of like smartphone apps.

  27. Sarahon 06 Jan 2016 at 5:16 pm


    I was involved with a kickstarter with that premise (Proxy Army) but we failed to make our required funds.

    Price point wasn’t there yet.

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