If you keep an eye on the news, you’re bound to have heard something about 3D printing. From seemingly nowhere, 3D printing has gone from a small hobbyist pursuit to the next big thing in the world of tech, with many people getting very, very excited about the potential of 3D printing.
3D printing is the process of producing 3D models of just about anything you can imagine using a 3D printer, a whole range of materials – from plastic to chocolate – and a CAD design file. The technology, although it has been in existence for decades, could not only change the world of technology but society as we know it.
At least that’s what the raft of excitable articles covering 3D printers over the past couple of years have said anyway. It’s a fair enough assertion – in theory, the ability for anyone to manufacture anything they need at home could have serious ramifications on the way we consume goods, affecting manufacturing and the economy. However, for those ramifications to take place, 3D printing first needs to make the leap into our homes.
The Home 3D Printing Revolution
As of yet, it hasn’t done that – although there is enough to suggest that the home 3D printing revolution isn’t far off. For starters, the actual cost of owning a 3D printer, once a major hurdle to commercialising the technology, has dropped significantly. Printrbot, for example, are retailing a 3D printer for just $549. Granted, it’s a low-end model but it’s a price point that was once thought impossible to achieve.
The race to bring 3D printer technology to market at a consumer-friendly cost has also led to the technology becoming more user-friendly. Whereas printing your own product might have once involved drawing up a complex CAD design, 3D printer-ready files are now readily available online and compatible with most 3D printers. A recently announced scanner from Makerbot will even allow users to scan an object, which their 3D printer will then be able to reproduce.
Essentially, 3D printing is becoming a lot easier and a lot cheaper – so what could potentially stop 3D printing from becoming the next big home tech essential?
Why 3D Printing May Never Take Hold
There are a number of reasons 3D printing might not take off in quite the way some analysts are expecting. The first, and one of the most hotly debated topics surrounding 3D printing, is the issue of copyright. A quick browse around one of the many 3D printing file-hosting sites available will turn up thousands of patented designs, from LEGO bricks to models of movie characters, available for free.
This presents a big problem for manufacturers, the same kind of problem faced by the music industry when illegal downloading first became a major issue. Manufacturers have to – and have a right to – protect their interests; should 3D printing really take off and thousands of people are printing patented products for free at home, it could potentially run them out of business entirely.
This is why companies like Games Workshop have begun to take legal action against well-meaning hobbyists reproducing their designs for 3D printers online. The Games Workshop case is likely just the tip of the patent iceberg – as 3D printing gets more popular, you can expect many more companies to start releasing the legal hounds on hobbyists.
It’s also likely that 3D printing will come under heavy regulation and legislation aimed at protecting the interests of major manufacturers. Considering the amount of patented products and designs there are, and the amount of manufacturers and designers there are keen to protect their financial interests, this kind of legislation could seriously limit what can legally be produced using a home 3D printer.
Beyond legal considerations, there is also the issue of cost. While 3D printers are getting cheaper, many would still consider $549 for what is essentially a hobbyist machine a lot of money. It’s also important to remember that this $549 is an upfront cost for the hardware. The cost of actually purchasing the liquid materials required to print products makes the 3D printing process a lot more expensive than it first appears. Along with cheap printers needs to a come a financially viable way of keeping the printer supplied.
Unlike standard inkjet printers, there is no single defined use for 3D printers either; they boast so many potential functions yet they don’t propose a solution that desperately needs solving, at least in the home. So long as they are marketed as a luxury rather than an essential, it seems unlikely that their use in homes will become widespread.
As with all new technology, there is also the issue of technical expertise, with many potential buyers put off by the design knowledge required to operate a printer or even just fear of a new technology. It’s unlikely that will present too much of an obstacle as 3D printers become even more user-friendly, but it’s still an initial hump 3D printer manufacturers will have to overcome to get their technology into people’s homes.
3D printers are an undoubtedly exciting prospect and hopefully, we’ll begin to see home easy-to-use 3D printers at a reasonable price point within a few years. However, it’s clear that there are a lot of legal and technical obstacles to overcome before that happens.
So, the home 3D printing revolution; expect it to happen. Just not yet.
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Guest article written by: Chris Smith is a writer with a passion for printing technology. He currently writes for Cartridge World, a company specialising in remanufactured toner cartridges.