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See all sides of 3-D printing

It's an exciting technology that's not quite ready for prime time.

By Rich_Maloof Feb 20, 2013 6:34PM

Imagine printing jewelry of your own design, toys for your children or parts to fix your bike. The allure of 3-D printing begins with the idea of overhauling manufacturing, or at least a few small sectors of it, and enabling consumers to produce materials, parts and possibly whole products on demand from printers in their very own homes.

Photo: 3D / Ruan Banhui/CorbisEven President Barack Obama, in his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, said, "A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the capability to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

The appeal of 3-D printing is hard to deny — and its reality easy to overstate.

3-D printing and design has been a hot topic in tech circles lately, and the stocks for a number of 3-D companies heated up the day after Obama spoke. But those in the know say we all need to cool down.

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The potential for the technology is worth getting very excited about, but as it stands right now, you can’t exactly draw a picture of a smartphone, or a sousaphone for that matter, and print it out. Dedicated designers and hobbyists who shell out for consumer-grade 3-D printers (which start around $1,500) are thrilled when the machine extrudes a gasket or a miniature gear that matches their intended specs, reproduces reliably, and doesn’t crumble into pieces. That is to say, we've got some distance to go.

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In the "3D Thursday" blog over at Make, writer Michael Zalewski offers a well-informed reality check on the current state of 3-D printing. He explains in 3D Printing Revolution: the Complex Reality that the first challenge is designing the stuff to be printed. Lay people and the manufacturers who want to sell them hardware and software may not want to hear it, but to mechanically engineer an object with some practical form and function requires a knowledge of (wait for it…) mechanical engineering. Says Zalewski, "The high profile of 3-D printing means that a vast majority of people who buy low-cost [printers] in the heat of the moment won’t be aware how difficult it is to progress from ideas to viable parts."

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Users will soon to be able to purchase designs created by professional industrial designers, taking that piece out of the equation, but Zalewski explains that the next challenge is in the quality and cost of materials used for rendering (as if cartridges for paper printing weren’t already ridiculous). There’s a great variety of engineering materials available, including virtually every kind of metal and plastic, but they don’t all make it through the home-manufacturing process in good shape. Some plastics can’t hold their form; rubbers break up; composite materials can be of questionable stability and durability.

The practical obstacles to 3D printing are exacerbated by an industry that's eager to capitalize on its promise. The best technologies are too expensive and too complex to create widespread demand,  which would help drive prices and accessibility downward. And as Wired pointed out Tuesday, legal in-fighting over rights and patents is liable to keep the technology from gaining momentum for years to come.

Again, there’s really is no question whether or not 3-D will have useful, practical and wildly creative applications — just check out this 3Doodler pen being released. 3D printing is a thrilling technology whose time has not yet come.

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Photo: 3D / Ruan Banhui/Corbis

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