What is the potential for 3-D printing?

I think 3-D printing will happen, and indeed already is happening, but I don’t see that it will bring a utopian new future.  From a recent New Scientist article (gated, related version here), here are two points:

…it’s difficult to print an object in more than one or two materials…


…these combined hardware and materials issues mean that only a relatively small proportion of all people will end up printing out objects themselves.  A more likely scenario is the growth of online services like Shapeways…or perhaps neighborhood print shops.

Maybe I’m blind, but I don’t yet see this as a technological game-changer.  It seems more like a way of saving on transportation costs.  To put it another way, what’s the huge gain of making everyone a manufacturing locavore?  Perhaps there will be some new flurry of home-based innovation, based on tinkering from what these printers can drum up, but that seems to me quite speculative.


Re: "I don’t yet see this as a technological game-changer. It seems more like a way of saving on transportation costs"

They said the same thing about the railroad.

Did they? [needs citation].

I'm with Tyler on this one. I have a friend who works in VC and loves these printers, but it seems like it will be a boon only to hobbyists and small-parts users, and not anyone else. Just look around you at the stuff you use. Lots of it is fabric or has a computer chip. Printers won't do either of those for a while (ever? for fabrics), and the cost of shipping continues to drop to get these thing delivered quickly and cheaply (thanks Amazon!).

Nice, Moti. We think alike.

Lots of 3-D printers are in fact miniature assembly lines, not just layered model generators. As for innovation, the rule of thumb is 1 content creator to 30 to 300 content consumers, so obviously 3D printers per se won't change that. I personally wish the US Patent Office (PTO) goes back to the discarded rule that you need a functional prototype to be filed with the PTO of (nearly) any invention for patent, which would cut down on patent trolls. And 3-D printers still need a "killer app", yet to be discovered. Perhaps downloadable chocolate, as the Economist once said, or a 3D printer handgun?

Moti, Here's one: Henry Flagler's railroad to Key West: http://www.historicpalmbeach.com/tag/henry-flagler/

On the same point of reducing transport costs, please note that close parts manufacturing not only reduces transport costs, it reduces time, and it reduces inventory...think of that next time when you order a part for your washing machine and have to wait three weeks.

Moti, I think you may also be overreading what I said: Let me be clearer: To say that something ONLY reduces transportation costs and therefore must not have a big impact is also what you could have said about the railroad: it ONLY reduced transportation costs.

Personal computers, as they said in the mid to late 70's, would only be used by hobbyist and not have much of an impact on the mainframe industry.

A minor quibble: the railroad did more than just reduce transportation costs. You could travel faster than by horseback, and that was the first speed increase for land travel in thousands of years.

It also democratized long-distance land travel by making it cheaper and more accessible, and that started a trend that has had subtle but major effects. Before the advent of mass transportation, for instance, the average distance between the birthplaces of a married couple was only a few miles.

No quible, I agree. 3d printing reduces more than transportation costs as well. The point is, transportation costs matter, as well as time, inventory, etc. We agree.

As an aside, why this sudden fascination with 3D printers when CNC machines have been around for a couple of decades now? Other than blind cavities what is a 3D printer capable of that a CNC isn't? Color?

OTOH, those 6-axis laser CNC millers are to me way more impressive than a typical 3D-printer.

Cheaper. As well, the learning curve to use a CNC machine is quite high.

'but it seems like it will be a boon only to hobbyists and small-parts users, and not anyone else.'

Welcome to the predictions made about personal computers, ca. 1977.

And it isn't as if the Internet required a personal computer to access, and it isn't as if one needs one today (leaving aside the question if a smartphone is also just a personal computer in a different form factor).

But the Internet as it exists, most particularly including the vast distribution and reproduction of content, would not have occurred without the personal computer providing essentially anyone access to what became the web.

Interestingly, Staples plans to offer 3D printing in its stores. Well, OK, not its American stores -

'The office supply chain's apparent partner in the venture, MCOR Technologies, makes a commercial-class color 3D printer called the Iris that will be deployed first to Staples locations in the Netherlands and Belgium in early 2013. MCOR announced the printing service, dubbed Staples Easy 3D, in a press release, and at the Euromold conference in Germany.'


They're perfect for spritzing out black market Star Wars action figures.

For how many years was fibre optics a "solution looking for a problem" ?

Now maybe fibre optics isn't a great game changer either, but there's an awful lot of things wouldn't work nearly as well without it.

So, time, patience, opportunity and some lateral thinking, maybe ?

Railroads are the perfect example. Hobbyists play with model trains, corporations use the real thing. The big change is industrial applications for factories that require fewer unskilled laborers and more computer programmers, where it cuts shipping costs (especially for a resource rich nation such as the United States), inventory costs, time, allows on demand custom orders, meaning a company can serve more customers with more products than ever before.

Even if there's a small marginal change in total cost of the good, moving a factory from China to the United States is a major shift in labor demand, tax base, trade deficit, etc.

'Now maybe fibre optics isn’t a great game changer.'

If you assumed that, you could not be more wrong. Fiber-optic cable is the biggest factor out there enabling the world we've got.

Everything on our planet-girdling electronic networks -- any kind of data, Cloud-based supercomputing, video, voice telephony, the instructions these 3D printers are going to have downloaded into them -- travels Internet packet-mode over fiber-optic cables. Fiber-optic mostly put comsats out of business, and it's only over the last mile that we're still using cell towers and copper wires.

That's before they start doing photonic computing over fiber-optic in a couple of decades.

It will be disruptive. It has the potential to do to any store that sells a lot of plastic what the digital revolution did to record stores.

What stores sell a lot of plastic? WalMart, Amazon, Toys R Us, Target, Automotive, the list goes on.

>…it’s difficult to print an object in more than one or two materials…

This is a very temporary problem.

You are missing the point. It's tooling costs.

In the mid to late 1990s, I seemed to be working constantly to update electronics packaging for products, and one of the things that changed was the enclosures.

When you had a finned inclosure in 1985, it was made of multiple parts, and dip brazed together, because the tooling cost for casting something the size of a shoe box was on the order of 1/2 a million dollars.

In 1995, you could use SLA to create a master, and create the tooling for a casting using that, and your tooling cost was $20 K. Dirt cheap.

The cost savings in 3D printing is in TOOLING (and time).

When you plan to make 15 pieces, and your tooling costs drops by a factor of 20, it is, as Joe Biden said, "A big f%$#ing deal"

Did 'they'? Link?

Snarky reply to Bill above.

Hah! Great minds...

See my Flagler link above.

They also said it about canals, too, before there were railways: "President Thomas Jefferson called it "a little short of madness" and rejected it; however, Hawley interested New York Governor DeWitt Clinton in the project. There was much opposition, and the project was ridiculed as "Clinton's folly" and "Clinton's ditch". In 1817, though, Clinton received approval from the legislature for $7 million for construction."

And, the Panama Canal.

To reduce confusion, you should have mentioned the Erie Canal by name.

So what? If you look at some 50's projections we all should have had personal robot Man Friday's, flying cars and maybe a lunar vacation too.

Some technologies are underhyped; others are overhyped. The fact that some people got it wrong about railways and canals doesn't mean that all of us have to be shamed into awe of 3D-printers?

I'm with Tyler here: 3D-printing is overhyped.

The skepticism to those projects you cite was because of cost not the usefulness of the technology. After all the transcontinental railroad was built decades before Flagler's project. And canals had been used for centuries before the project you cite.

This post and the comments are interesting to me because I have been looking at old competitive strategy books (for a number of reasons relating to an article), and the predictions about how certain strategies, for example, would deter entry involved Kodak, IBM, Xerox, etc., or how certain resale price strategies would elevate a brand and keep it in the consumers mind as "special" see Bose (which now faces competition for the same product, with consumers relying upon webreviews for comparisons, rather than instore sales "specialists" who would upsell you to a higher priced brand, etc. And, whatever happened to the threat of Microsoft?

All of these companies and their strategies were defeated by a multiplicity of technological changes. Peters wasn't anymore predictive than Besanko. Varian and Shapiro did pretty well though.

To me, what it tells you that you can't predict much. So, when Tyler says "3d printing" won't be significant because it only reduces transportation costs, I say...stand in line with Peters and Besanko, and all the other economists who seek to predict the growth and consequences of technological change.

Written on my Holoscopic 3d Ipad.

You may want to be careful about sharing a mind, even a great one, with msgkings!


"I got an open mind, why don't y'all get inside?" - Beastie Boys

The real breakthrough with 3D printing is the rapid prototyping -- this is essentially how the technology is used today.

Rapid prototyping brings down the fixed costs for start-ups that want to engage in producing real world products (like robots).

It's one thing to show potential big-money investors a computer model of your robot, and quite another to show them a working robot -- even if it is a rough, 3D printed one.

Once you have the prototype working you can use technologies with high fixed cost and low marginal cost to make the actual product.

(There is also extremely high-precision 3D printing which might be usable for medical purposes, but it mostly in the experimental phase:


The real breakthrough in 3D printing hasn't arrived yet. That comes when a 3D printer can make itself. You will still have to buy stepper motors and electronics, but the expensive part will be free (aside from the cost of printable materials). The first ones may be slow and clumsy, but with a million tinkerers in an open-source community, the designs will optimize rapidly.

Isn't that the RepRap? Not sure if I see a revolution yet ...

From what I see in Wikipedia, they aren't there yet. And, the design relies heavily on items like rod stock, with very few custom parts. What's needed is a 3D printer that can be largely made by itself.

Motors and electronic modules are currently unprintable, so we'd have to cut them some slack there. Nuts, bolts, belts, and some other parts are not printable in any practical sense, but I expect substitutes to be designed, such as snap-fit fastening and more creative mechanisms that are not copies of traditional mechanisms.

I've seen 3-D printers in use at a global shoe manufacturer. They can come up with a new shoe design during the day and have a version they can hold in their hands the next morning to see how it looks.

As for practical home uses....there's already a large set of pre-designed objects for the makerbot. http://www.thingiverse.com/categories/tools

Think of all the little plastic things you can lose or wear out around the house. Buttons, knobs, snap covers for your toilet seat bolts.

I am old enough to remember the world without personal computers. I think things change faster than we think they do in the present.

Me too, and I'm not that old. We used slide rules in high school.

The first computers were toys as well. Remember the sinclair? In a computer store there was a modern desktop pc that looked like a Commodore. I used an Apple 2C and about the only interesting thing was it came with Pascal language.

These are useful things for making small custom parts, or, as mentioned above, for making prototypes. They are not very useful for making things which are already available elsewhere.

When the printing materials become stronger, the printers will become more more interesting.

The materials will never become "stronger" enough.

The stronger products are made by robots but only after a designers (with computer assist) define the exact layouts of building the stronger material, the layup of resin coated carbon fiber on a form that is then placed in a 50 ton press which heats the resin to fuse it into a highly cross-linked polymer.

"Printing" with welding wire won't align the metal grains into the right orientation to create the internal stress that gives it strength - that requires hundred ton presses and mold to strain the metal to align the grains and create the internal stresses.

Making real products requires molds that are hard to design and make, but fabricating toys and mockups provides something tactile to be experienced so the mind can fully evaluate it. Getting the form right and modeling the function before becoming a real capitalist reduces the risks. Spending a million before investing a hundred million on capital to reduce the capital investment by 100 million and thus reducing the risk is well worth it.

But what 3d printers do today was done all the time by model makers. You have seen them in movies about cars with craftsmen shaving the shapes of fenders and fins of full-size wood mockups, unless you are young.

The craftsmen have been retired to save money because we can use computers to design thing faster because artists and craftsmen just don't understand how to design and make products.

That's why Apple is a failure. Steve Jobs is one of those artist/craftsmen types who started with blocks of wood to get the form, and fussed endlessly about the artistic statement, fussing over those trivial details like the look and feels of the rounded corners and in sparing no expense to make it thin enough to feel right. Steve Jobs was fired because he was an artist not someone making products. Anyone from Coca Cola or K-Mart could run Apple better than Jobs.

Apple a failure? I guess you are being sarcastic? Jobs was fired but it was a mistake clearly and now Apple is one of the most valuable companies after he came back. Or maybe Jobs needed the exile experience to make Apple into a success. But anyway...

The post Jobs Apple has yet to produce anything remarkable. It is early yet.

You have an interesting and thoroughly non-market-based definition of failure. Even that aside, the most amusing thing about your incoherent babbling is that Apple *did* try a 'Anyone from Coca-Cola or Kmart' CEO, named John Sculley. You may find googling his term at Apple instructive. In any case, I hope you're enjoying school holidays!

If a comment seems so precisely wrong-headed, doesn't that make you think it might be irony?

Mulp seems to be saying that the real value of 3D printing is in prototyping, not full production runs, but that the benefit is lost if companies don't actually practice high-quality prototyping and product design.

These are useful things for making small custom parts, or, as mentioned above, for making prototypes. They are not very useful for making things which are already available elsewhere.

I semi-agree. The trouble with "things which are already available elsewhere" is that they are sometimes absurdly expensive. Not normal consumer goods, but spare parts and the like.

The handle on my microwave broke. This is a piece of plastic with two screw holes. That's it. The manufacturer wanted $60 for a replacement. An Internet site managed to get me one for about $40. I guess I could have drilled some holes in a piece of wood and painted it black and it would have worked, but somehow I wanted a real handle. Anyone had a similar experience?

If the local hardware store had a 3-D printer, and access to a library of designs, what would it cost to get them to print me a replacement handle?

My feeling is that there's tons of stuff like that - miscellaneous plastic crap - that could be supplied at prices a fraction of what it costs now.

At at lunch with FT a few days ago, you answered a similar question regarding the Internet: "way overrated in what it’s done to date but considerably underrated in what it will do".

Keeping in mind Clifford Stoll's laughably premature dismissal of the Internet's potential back in early 1995, you're a brave or foolish man to dismiss the potential of 3D printing, unless this is just a provocative gambit to stir up many pageviews of hopefully fruitful discussion.

Many industries were profoundly affected when the Internet disintermediated the distribution of things made out of bits and bytes: just ask newspaper publishers and record company executives. 3D printing suggests a future where things made out of atoms can be distributed -- and pirated -- almost as easily. Almost, because manufacturing each new copy will never be costless -- although who knows? Maybe plants will someday be genetically modified to grow the necessary plastics and resins. No one ever promised utopia, by the way: there are already rumblings of concern about the ease of printing out firearms.

Arguments invoking the present-day limitations of a technology in its infancy, or its current expensiveness, can be greeted with a shrug. People often prefer convenience over quality, and will put up with severe limitations in the early days if the tradeoff is accessibility, affordability or mobility, as with transistor radios vs. home stereo systems, personal computers vs. mainframes, early tinny-sounding online music vs. hi-fi reproduction, etc. And over time, the new disruptive technology usually drops in prices and greatly improves in quality.

3D printing is also the latest in a series of technological trends that shift the balance of power further away from nation states and further towards non-state actors. Today, it's hard to set up a proper factory in your jungle or mountain lair, except on a makeshift "Gilligan's Island" basis. So anything that ups the technological capabilities of insurgent groups -- a battery of solar-powered 3D printers churning out precision components -- is likely to bring about a more turbulent world. More failed states, in particular. We may see more "bottom-up coups d'état", where control is wrested away from the central government not by a sudden takeover of the top levels of a power structure, but a slow gradual takeover of all its lower levels, until the nominal government finds itself in control of very little (as per current trends in Mexico and Pakistan).

We may see lot of lulz-motivated disruption and sabotage: what happens when you can print out caltrops by the bucketful and throw them off highway overpasses?

Caltrops are dangerous, no doubt. But if I'm driving beneath a lot of overpasses, I'm likely to be more worried about plain old cinder blocks or big bricks. And they don't need to be printed. (I don't have a link for it, but I did read that very year there's someone killed when teens drop rocks etc. off overpasses onto cars.)

Update: This happens a lot. (Google "object dropped from overpass")

You have to actually be there when you throw the brick, though. And you can only throw one brick and then run away before you're caught. And the brick might miss, etc. etc.

Never mind overpasses, actually. It would make far more sense to choose a deserted stretch of highway running through a forest, in the middle of the night, far away from any surveillance cameras. And don't get too fixated on caltrops specifically, that was merely the first and simplest thing that comes to mind as part of a category of zerg-style sabotage and physical-world denial of service, which 3D printing might enable.

Caltrops are already really easy to make, just twist a few pieces of stiff wire together in the right configuration. There's a divides between hacking some dick pictures onto a website or a DDOS attack and mass murder that most internet trolls aren't willing to cross. The ones that are manage to find guns pretty easily.

Here's how I think it will be somewhere between a really and extremely important technology.

It's extremely difficult to find out what kind of product potential customers will buy at any point in time without actually making the product. Just ask any startup or internal product R&D group. Because the "space" of potential products is very high dimensional, the cost of exploring a volume of product space is a very high exponent of the marginal cost of building a functional prototype. So even a small decrease in the marginal cost of prototyping allows you to explore a much bigger volume of product space on a given budget.

Even if no 3D printer ever makes it into a consumer household, 3D printers can _dramatically_ increase the variety of product consumers will get because the entry costs to exploring product space are much smaller and the volume of space each entrant can explore is much higher.

Note also that this analysis makes 3D printers an enormous _complement_ to cheap, flexible manufacturing lines. You can confidently test lots of prototypes and know you'll probably be able to build them cheaply at scale. Moreover, because you can send the manufacturer the same CAD files you used in your prototype, they can forecast costs more accurately and setup lines more quickly. So the _frequency_ of new prouduct introduction increase as well as the volume.

Look at the products around you: How many of the materials they are made out of can a 3D-printer handle? Assuming there's a reason these various materials were needed in the first place, today's 3D-printer can only produce a tiny subset of the items we use.

Most of the products I see around me at the moment could have a plausible, temporary facsimile fabricated with a 3d printer. My argument is only that it decreases product R&D costs and that a small decrease leads to a much large volume of potential products that can be explored.

But how many of those things you see that could be made with a 3D printer could a skilled hobbyist make from balsa wood or model foam core or modeling clay much faster and with less costly materials and far cheap capital?

Last time I looked at upgrading my Solidworks it was a couple of thousand which was twice the previous upgrade which was twice the previous. Sure computer design is cool, but the software is not cheap, and the freeware and open source requires lots of investment. And none get to a form that can be used to manufacture parts unless as a designer you know how it will be manufactured. Cast, die cut, stamped, machined, formed, layed-up by a resin fiber robot to be pressed on a form, injection molded, extruded, hot rolled, cold rolled, lost wax, die cast, sand cast, surface mounted, through hole, 2 layer or 4, 6, 8 layer boards, FPGA, ASIC, Making a product like a car which is high volume involves understanding all these and more manufacturing processes.

On the other hand, something like tupperware is "simple", you just need to have an expert plastics mold maker who can turn your design concept into molds that work, or you need to understand injection mold plastics in great detail as well as machining.

With a 3D printer you can create a model of a tupperware product, but it won't be functional, and it won't cut the cost of design by any significant amount. The product does not define the mold in a direct mirroring, but instead the mold is defined by the dynamics of the plastic as it cools and shrinks.

TANSTAAFL. 3rd printing is seen by too many as a free lunch escape from knowing how to really make things in the real world.

I really like my bread machine. Many enthusiasts had them. Perhaps fewer carry on. The machine allows me to custom tune on demand a product that is also widely available and low cost. For that reason, non-owners aren't terribly impressed.

At current technology home 3d printers may expensively print inexpensive parts. As a non-owner, I'm not terribly impressed.

For home use much lower cost machine ($100?) for making cheap parts would be convenient, or the ability of a mid-priced machine to make more valuable and previously expensive parts.

I look forward to the day where I print my own http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abrams_tank to fight off those commies from the UN.

I think this is the dumbest (possibly the only dumb) post I've ever seen from TC. *Obviously* the technology will improve to allow stronger materials (including metals) and almost certainly people will then figure out how to compensate for the weaknesses in metal castings versus machined counterparts so that, for instance, the majority of pre-fab metal hardware ceases to exist and Home Depot becomes a combination lumber yard and print shop in half the space. I will no longer be told "that part is no longer available" by my local VW dealer parts department; all machine parts will suddenly be available in perpetuity. It doesn't just reduce transportation costs, it enables the existence of a vast class of manufactured objects which are currently made extinct by the loss of economies of scale; looked at another way, it *creates* significant economies of scale for almost all manufactured objects by way of the obviated overhead expenses of tooling, transportation, and most importantly storage. It's like everybody's shelf space just exploded to infinity.

And what pct. of gdp is all of that? Less than one, I say.

And what percent of the volatility in GDP growth is accounted for by inventories? More than one, I am sure. Improving our ability to smooth through some supply shocks, even if temporarily, would help the economy and policy measures.

And why set this technology up against a "utopian new future" standard? And why it alone? My afternoon would have been smoother if I could have printed out a little bot to keep my two year old in his bed for a nap, I had a driverless car to drop us off at the airport, fueled by the algae-gasoline my brother's startup is trying to make...more utility, money saved, and a green nod. I don't recall any period of innovation being about one and only one technology. So maybe these printers are more of symbolic act for now...I thought those could be powerful too, right?

In the future, you'll be able to print some "children's tylenol" (or more likely no-name knock-off) and then a silicon pacifier/soother. Presto! two year old fixed.

Yes, if our fantasies all came true life would be great fun. How close are we really to tylenol / bot printing?

My comment was not about fantasies, I was simply saying that bundles of innovation add up. My day in its reality version involved plenty of technology that didn't exist when I was my kids' age. As an aside, my son did finally take his nap (no drugs, thank you) on the flight. Low tech entertainment watching him sleep. I really don't know much about 3D printers but I thought it was odd how the transportation cost angle was okay to dismiss them as limited but when Gordon said the same about driverless cars it was off base. Whatever, the truth is often between the hype and the gloom.

I guess "utopian new future" is in the eye of the beholder -- being able to get quick cheap replacement parts for machines which haven't been substantially improved on to me would be utopian. Like think of every time you've ever had to wait for parts to show up to repair a fridge or an elevator or your only commuter vehicle. I have no idea how you measure that as a fraction of GDP. Would that even reflect the benefit in any meaningful way? It's an improvement in the standard of living comparable(?) to clean water and indoor plumbing. These are surely a very small fraction of GDP as well, but they make today a utopian new future compared to what I understand of young Laura Ingalls Wilder's day, for instance. No?

This will probably hurt innovation, though.

The expense and lack of availability of spare parts for an obsolete piece of equipment drives up maintenance costs, and thereby provides a very helpful nudge to finally getting it scrapped and replaced. Cheap 3D-printed spare parts would make that nudge go away. Managers have a short-term focus on this quarter's financial results and don't care about long-term cost savings because they'll have moved on in a year or two anyway. Innovation withers when equipment makers can't find buyers for their new products.

Consider the analogy of Britain and Germany/Japan, post World War II. Germany's factories were bombed to rubble, they had no choice but to build new and more modern ones. Same for Japan. Britain's old buildings remained largely intact, and their manufacturing slid into irrelevance.

Oh, that old canard: Any country can voluntarily blow up its factories, homes, and transportation network, and see if they're better off for it! :-(

My one problem is I don't see the "obviousness". In going from a few polymers and metal powders to hard, high-strength alloys and thousands of other specialty materials created by material science.

"It’s like everybody’s shelf space just exploded to infinity."

In that case, we should invest in Self-Storage companies, for all the useless crap and gadgets people will undoubtedly print and then never get around to using, but won't want to throw away...

hindsight bias, as well as survivorship bias, least people to think that we get all the inventions we want. Actually not. Consider all the Popular Mechanic dreams of the 1930s.

"*Obviously* the technology will improve to allow stronger materials (including metals) and almost certainly people will then figure out how to compensate for the weaknesses in metal castings versus machined counterparts so that, for instance, the majority of pre-fab metal hardware ceases to exist "

I will resist saying that is the dumbest thing I ever read. I left the computer industry 25 years after I worked with CAT on computer design and computer controlled manufacturing thinking I could learn CAD CAD and machine parts in bot time. Just to make the equivalent of "Hello World" by computer control took me a year full time in machining technology. And that was just part of the education.

To make the parts you are talking about I learned the basics of materials and processes over five years in three of dozens of fields, machining, welding, and plastics. In all cases, the same material, say steel, is defined by the process, not the composition. Steel can be cast, cold rolled, hot rolled, stamped, sheered, extruded, formed, stretched, heat treated, usually in combinations of two or three of those. And the combination of processes will result in the steel having very different properties.

Most stuff designed on a computer by someone who is naive about making things will be merely models that manufacturing people turn into parts using their knowledge of materials and processes, and if they are lucky, they can input the designer's CAD file, most of the time, they start from scratch. I'm pretty sure this is true even at Boeing that has invested billions in CAD CAM and computerizing everything they do because every Boeing plane is custom built, even the duplicates.

I admit to being shocked at least once a week for over a year to realize how much computers can not be used for making things. They can assist, but it is the craftsman who matters and can't be computerized - that's why Apple products aren't made in the US - the craftsmen were fired to cut costs and Asia was payed to build their own, with US firms sending their US craftsmen to train them.

I agree with you about everything, but then think how many people have said the same things, almost word for word, in the various trades and skills that have disappeared?

I'm in a skilled trade, and every year there is part of the work that I did that goes to someone without the skills. The stuff that I do is getting more and more complex, not because of some exponential increase in complexity. Simply that there aren't as many easy jobs that I get hired to do. Someone less skilled and cheaper is now doing them. What is left, and there is plenty, is complex and demands a high level of skill.

That was indeed a rude way for me to put it, and I apologize to TC.

I definitely appreciate the importance of process here, and my guess would be that some combination of the following occurs:

1) Over time, design requirements adapt to prefer relatively economical processes, so that machined parts become even rarer than they already have. For instance the only machined parts that really come to my mind in your typical household appliance are screws.

2) CNC continues getting cheaper and more available. You've seen those CNC routers they sold at Sears for like $2k for a while, right? There was understandably not a sufficient market for that machine at that price, but I think it was the front edge of a wave. Talk to any serious woodworker, and (s)he has at least thought of getting a CNC kit. Among home machinists, CNC kits are almost common.

We can already 3D print metals. It's called Direct Laser Sintering:

You can also print gradient materials which are for example Inconel on one side and Stainless Steel on the other, thereby allowing different metals to be welded together through a 3D printed piece instead of mechanically attached. So the main mechanical advantage of 3D metal printing is that you can produce better interconnects.

HOWEVER, the materials are not as strong, because high quality metal synthesis requires careful control of temperature and pressure with respect to time in order to control the micro-structure of the material. That's probably surmountable, though it will take time and money.

And fundamentally, it takes time, so there is no way you'll just be able to quickly print it at your local home depot. You'll need to order several hours (cooling & finishing time) in advance for low quality material and one or more weeks in advance for high quality material.

If the price falls substantially, it might have an impact on manufacturing, because a single factory could quickly change what sort of part it is making.

Why should each individual consumer have to burdened with the design work, when it will already have been done by the manufacturer? In the kettle cap story, the consumer who needs a replacement part would purchase the design from the manufacturer, upload to his local print shop, and pick it up a couple hours later.

>purchase the design from the manufacture

and then put it up on Bittorrent

There is always a great when you ignore and dismiss every breakthrough.

Great *stagnation*

The change will be the already in progress lowering of production costs of small run manufacturing. It won't affect the manufacturing we see already; if you need half a million, you can get quite reasonably production equipment set up to crank them out. It is when you need 200.

In that process, eventually large run manufacturing will lose it's edge because it depends on expensive transportation and distribution systems.

As mentioned above, printing plastic bits is not meaningful in itself, but is a first step in a technological advance. Modern production techniques make the actual physical assembly of an item a small part of the process, the design testing, prototype steps are the long difficult part. The data that can print a plastic prototype can also manufacture a metallic part to tolerance.

What did Tyler say about desktop publishing when it came out? A bunch of self published stuff, nothing really interesting. In fact, it was the first step towards the dismantling of the print, distribute, read, wrap fish (or toilet paper) behemoth that defined publishing for decades.

I have the perhaps unusual perspective of owning a 3D printer, having owned part of a venture that used it, and now owning an over-the-top hobby machine shop for working with traditional materials.

It has been the case for more than 10 years that one of the best ways to make short runs of smallish cast parts (cast aluminum racecar engine parts in my case) was to print the casting flask with a Z-corp printer.

It has been the case for decades to a about a century that very high volume parts are stamped, out of strong materials at a stunning pace. Likewise injection-molded plastic. And CNC means that castings, forgings, and stampings, can be machined at a very rapid pace as well.

3D printers will be ever more important as they get bigger, get faster, get cheaper, and above all, work with better materials to better resolutions.

But just as the railroad did NOT completely displace water transport or walking, 3D printers are wildly unlikely to replace stamping, injection molding, or even forging or machining for high volume parts. Air travel has become a Very Big Thing, but you'll notice the world is still very full of cars, boats, walking, and trains...

The speculations about everybody "3d printing their own stuff" ignores the very high costs and cognitive loads required to design useful things in the first place. Is everybody really going to do 27 iterations of garden shovel handle to get a perfect one? Or will they go to the hardware store and buy the one they like best, and then maybe file down bits of it?

In a world were the cost in time and money of driving to the appliance store may be a large part of the total cost of a new appliance, who is going to spend any effort on a different appliance to make replacement parts?

A sort of strong analogy exists with clothing - lots of people have skills and equipment adequate to repair clothing - hardly anybody ever does - you just throw the socks with holes away and go buy new ones. That doesn't mean computer controlled embroidering sewing machines that sell for $1K or so aren't really interesting or even revolutionary - it just means they won't change daily life in anyway near the same ways as plumbing or cars.

I agree that they'll probably never replace "high volume" produced products. That's partially why I think most people won't own a 3D Printer personally - unless you have a particular work- or hobby-related need for it, it's still likely going to be cheaper to buy random stuff at the store (or the 3D Print Shop for customized goods).

You could see a lot more "customized" products, though, produced at low production runs.

It really depends on what the printers can ultimately make. Most people probably don't need a $1000 printer if all they're going to use it for is occasionally printing out some screws, tools, parts, and cutlery/dishware. Most of that stuff is quite cheap already, and you could go to either a store (or possibly a 3D Print Shop in the future) to get it for cheap. More likely is that you'll see a boom in "customized goods" and possibly really small runs of products (Boeing is experimenting with some of this stuff for making airplane components), as well as potentially allowing manufacturers to cut down on the costs involved in maintaining international supply chains.

What was the foreseeable potential of printing looked at from 1950s? In the next 50 years, did it meet or exceed those expectations?

Printing with more than 1-2 materials is hard, yes. But does that mean there is no technological breakthrough coming up sometime in the next few decades? Perhaps, but I would contend we do not know.

What's the potential? I see a potential in reducing retail costs. Storing blocks of raw material is cheaper than storing the item itself. This will mostly work for the stuff that is not superhyper mass produced, since those are anyway stuff for the old style factory machines. 3D printing will widen the set of things that can be offered from your local corner whether it be a small corner shop, bus stop, or Walmart.

You might not think this is big, but then again what is big? Does it need to look big? Is Walmartian revolution in retail a big change? Can 3D printing be bigger? No definite answer yet. Time will show.

I foresee the future of 3d printing following a mix of the open-source software model and the Amazon.com long tail. Since 3d printing ephemeralizes physical objects into what is essentially source-code, the value of the instructions to manufacture something drops to near-zero, much like open source software has reduced the cost of software.

As manufacturing automation becomes better and therefore cheaper, the LESS likely 3d printing will become a replacement for standard manufacturing. It would take a killer app to make 3d printing commonplace.

I do see it becoming common in certain respects, such as maintaining libraries of replacement parts. Enthusiasts of products that have gone out of production could have access to replacement parts for perpetuity.

A few things that I expect in the future:

- A central location or search engine for 3d printable objects.

- Mashups and tweaked replacements to non-3d printed objects. The long tail allows for very custom objects that would not be feasible if they needed standard manufacturing. For example, perhaps a smartphone dock which is custom for both my particular brand of smartphone and my car.

- Open source objects as the majority of available items. It only takes one person to create an 3d object once, and it is then available to the world. One person could create an improved replacement part for a commercial product that commonly breaks, and anyone could print it, assuming the value added is greater than the time and effort taken to print and install it.

- Printable embedded circuitry, so that printed objects have some intelligence and electronics.

- Larger objects which are easily assembled via snap-together construction of many smaller parts, reducing the need for a large scale printer. Even commercial products which are not 3d-printed may be designed so that replacement parts would be available exclusively via a 3d object library for printing.

- Anything commercial product that is simply manufactured, yet has a unexplainably high price tag will become pirated 'warez'. Premium brand objects will have knock offs available for free or near-free online. Objects for young people want would likely do well here, since they typically have more time than money.

- Contraband such as weapons. As we've seen, the old method of regulating the lower receiver of assault weapons is history.

– A central location or search engine for 3d printable objects.

I'd expect you'd see a lot of wikis on it, or whatever the equivalent to wikis is 25 years down the line. Most people might have no idea about how to create a schematic to be printed - they'll just download existing ones that have been made by other people, and then tweak it here and there if possible.

I agree that it's highly unlikely that everyone will have one at home, but there are a couple of ways I see 3-D printing changing the hardware product universe.

1) The speed and cost of innovation. I would print prototypes overnight at my old job. Sending it out to be machined or cast would be a week min. Getting an injection molded prototype was more like a month. Look at how quickly software products evolve because the speed of production and cost of failure are so low. 3D printing enables that for hardware, at least in the prototyping phase.

2) Small run production. Injection molding, stamping etc are economical only at scale. They also have up front capital requirements. There is a market for niche products in small volumes. Kinda like how the ebook enables indie authors get over the scale barrier of having to print physical books. I suspect there's also a market for greater customization in non-niche products.

2) Small run production. Injection molding, stamping etc are economical only at scale. They also have up front capital requirements. There is a market for niche products in small volumes. Kinda like how the ebook enables indie authors get over the scale barrier of having to print physical books. I suspect there’s also a market for greater customization in non-niche products.

This. There was a good article in the New York Times a few months back about how a lot of US manufacturing is already starting to resemble this: smaller runs of a highly diverse set of stuff, made on demand. If 3D Printers can really up this to the next level, to the point where tons of goods can be produced in small runs with heavy customization, then I could see it having a huge impact on the manufacturing business. It could actually make it possible for clusters of manufacturing firms to produce products from raw materials to completed products, without having to rely on international supply chains if you want to get prices down.

I see a lot of room for customization, too, particularly with car parts, decorations, electronics, and computers. This probably wouldn't lead to a 3D Printer in every home, but you could see a lot more localization of production (such as the aforementioned "neighborhood 3D Print Shops").

Regarding #2 what sort of products do you have in mind?

One more

3) A lot of the capital that is locked up in physical inventory can be freed up using print on demand services.

1) Toys. (Small % of GDP no doubt). I think it's a big deal for toys.
2) etsy / kickstarter are interesting threads to follow

Best comments so far:
Real shortage is good designs. Still true in software too, btw
Sewing machines are a very good model of several dynamics, as are laser and inkjet printers.

if i was going to guess, cheaper parts with more redundancy?

There's that, too. We might not build stuff to last as long, since it's easier to replace it. You could also see a bunch of currently expensive products become much more "disposable", like tablets and the like.

Actually, I take back that last part. We won't know if that's the case unless the printers can make them for cheaper than existing runs, and in any case "cheaper" is more likely to come from the large production runs.

If I had one as a kid I would have made every science fiction gun ever put on TV along with buckets full of light sabers.

Gary beat me to some of the obvious items, but I also expect:

* Being able to keep things like old computers, cars, and TVs much longer, because replacement parts will no longer be unavailable as a result of planned obsolescence. (Smart consumers will demand and store the plans for every part as a condition of buying the product.)

* The ability of "mainstream media" to limit what's available in terms of books, music, and movies will disappear just as it already has for news. This doesn't mean the media companies will go away, but they will have to lower the price for each product to what it's worth to us, because infringement will be impossible to stop. Some media will survive -- the ones that find workable new business models. But Hollywood as we know it will be gone, and good riddance.

* Similarly, the Internet will replace both the telephone and cable TV, and some sort of "crowd sourced" addressing system will replace the present top-down domain naming scheme, thus making it next to impossible for anyone, including any government, to block a site.

* Eventually, we will have 3D printers accurate to molecular scale, and it will no longer be possible to effectively ban any substance (unless the individual atoms it requires are unavailable, so there is still hope that nukes can be controlled).

If you wanted to do regulatory limits on what you could print, I think the best bet would be to limit access to certain substances involved in manufacturing. There are a number of chemicals and materials that are actually toxic if not handled improperly, so you could probably slap a licensing regime on those (sort of like how we limit access to the kind of fertilizer material that could be used in "Oklahoma City" style bombs).

That's exactly what should *never* happen. (I hope!)

Popular discussion of 3D Printing seems to limit itself to looks and dimensional accuracy. I'd love to see the capability envelope of current printers with respect to ductility, Youngs moduli, brittleness, fatigue, conductivity, glass transition temperatures, ignition points, chemical resistance, corrosion and all the other metrics that go into material selection.

Reading the current rosy articles on 3D-printing would make one wonder why the fields of metallurgy and materials science ever existed.

Might as well add in chemistry, considering the above post that contemplates 3D printers "accurate to molecular scale", which will apparently conjure up whatever molecules we want out of thin air.

What I had in mind was building them atom by atom, as in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.

Hi, I actually work in a facility that has a handful of 3D printers. I dont use them, but my peers do, and I have witnesses their struggles with them quite a lot. Also, I use similar technology, like computer controlled laser cutters very regularly. I think I could offer some insight in this:

I agree, with Tyler Cowen in his original post. The most absurd claims I have ever heard are that no one will need to work or buy anything because 3D printers will just do all of it for us. Realistically, even on a small personal scale, 3D printing will not always be the ideal way to make stuff. Its very good at what it does, but what it does is not universally needed. I have read a few comments here praising its use in rapid prototyping. I agree with those posts too. If you want a piece of plastic, in a small and particular shape, then 3D printers are great.

But there are limitations:

1. Your part needs a flat side. The printer prints onto a surface. If cant print an overhang greater than a certain angle. There are some solutions to this problem that require printing two different materials, the plastic and some soluble material that can be chemically removed, but like has been mentioned printing in two materials is hard.

2. It actually takes a long time to print even modestly large/dense pieces. Some of the prints in my space have taken 24-36 hours, to make objects a few inches in their dimensions. Most prints I would guess take an hour or two though.

3. The machines arent perfect, the plastic is melted and extruded onto a surface where it quickly cools. The machine then prints another layer on top of the plastic. When its heated the material becomes stringy and it can miss its mark and not stick to the layer below it. In doing so, the next layer has no where to land. Every now and then prints just come out as big knots of plastic wires.

As a manufacturer, I have my doubts about whether 3d printers will be as widespread as home paper printers - I think that specialized industrial applications will emerge, but the barrier to adoption will be that designing and making things is actually difficult. No one on this thread has yet mentioned that complex products require a sequence of assembly steps, and that having the replacement part in hand is no guarantee that one can successfully install it. If mere access to capable tools was sufficient to make factories and workshops obsolete, they would have disappeared long ago.

I'm kind of annoyed by how seriously some people take their predictions.

Seriously guys. You can't predict shit beyond maybe ten years, at best. Get real.

The molecular assembly I'm talking about can already be done with a scanning tunneling electron microscope, so we're not talking science fiction, just decent engineering.

These things were always my idea of the future even before I knew they existed. Yes, it may take a while for these things to reach their potential, but, come on- they are definite game changers. For one, there would be so much more customization. You could get auto parts, machine parts to your own specifications and make your own improvements and advancements. There are a lot of redneck engineers out there. I think this would lead to a design boom

Also, even if they can't ever use more than one or two materials, wouldn't a lot of products change to allow for this? I mean is plastic, rubber and stainless steel all really necessary to make a blender (or a product that does essentially the same thing)?

Natural evolution: Printing on ~1 micron scale over ~1 mm^3 or more from a huge palette of materials (many reservoirs possible with microfluidic plumbing). Materials might not be mechanically strong, but many many things do not require strength. What to do with it? Swallow it.
Immense information density to the device. Embed vesicles, logic circuits (not necessarily with electron charge as the information carrier- chemical/fluidic logic is possible at this scale), sensors, bioactive compounds, fluidic channels. Sense body state and respond. Bring drugs into the IT age. Print a pill each day to optimize your body state based on that day's needs and data.
Transformative. No stagnation. Many years off. But inevitable?

Etsy is where this will be useful. Customized gifts, let's not underestimate the effect.

If you want to access 3d printers, you might want to join a local maker society (people who own in common tech equipment such as 3d printers and laser cutters):


Maybe if Santa is nice to you, you will get a membership.

I checked out the Projects page at Bill's link: http://makeprojects.com/

I like the idea of making my own cups and plates. I can't see too many people's wives being impressed though. And could I ever purchase the materials, glazes, dyes, etc. cheaper than the factory stamping them out by the ton? And the kilowatts? Oh, that's right...solar power. Maybe I could harness my own emissions for a power source too. (Guess what's for supper tonight, kids!)

This is hobbyist stuff for people with sufficient leisure, itself a product of scale and the division of labor. When the technology really gets cranked up, it will naturally be utilized most fully by well-capitalized specialists. The printers themselves are the end-product of complex refinement and manufacturing. It's called 'civilization.'

Now, I'd like to live in a quaint, autarkic village as much as the next guy, but the day we're bidding for the technology and materials to make the cups and plates so our families don't have to eat the food grown in the communal plot out of their hands, we will say goodbye to a lot of other things. Like huge tax bases to fund overseas wars and crazed social engineering schemes.

I forgot, what was that thing that Steve Jobs made in his garage?

Do try to keep up:

Whatever prototypes Steve Jobs ever cooked up in his garage, he very quickly sourced the process to capital-intensive manufacturing in order to sell millions of iPods, iMacs, iWhatevers and earn himself billions of dollars. That's how economies pan out because that's what people do. And Richard Stallman can gripe all he wants about it, but that's how it works.

I don't think that the real "future" in 3-D printing is for the DIY or print at home capability but for the capability of reducing real manufacturing costs. In a Lean Manufacturing environment this would be a huge improvement over today's status quo. Having an inventory of bulk materials (like the "ink" that would be used to print things) that can be easily shipped due to its high packing density (think it is easier to pack and ship a drum of "ink" than a finished material with odd dimensions) that you can make into whatever the market demands at that moment with very little tool-up time. That will help companies respond to current demand much better and eliminate needles inventory excesses of partially finished goods. It will also make design improvements much easier to implement. In fact I would be so bold as to predict an entire manufacturing economy built on this paradigm would eliminate TGS.

And if similar sentiments were shared in other comments I am not trying to plagiarize them, I just didn't have time to read them all.

Hmm. Many extreme views untempered by uncertainty.

Many years ago I used an early laser printer. I thought that it was great but I did not imagine that I would have one, let alone my present three, in my home.

It seems to me that a small 3D printer, whether at home or at the local hardware store, could be quite useful. I think it will be a long time before 3D printers are making products such as spark plugs, 12-volt batteries, auto engine valves, etc.

But, I can easily imagine them making an assortment of weirdly shaped, often unobtainable washers, O-rings, plastic knobs, covers, etc. There are many common parts that need little strength or only need to resist compressive forces---they seem like candidates for such processing.

Consider also that firms may choose to design products that permit using 3D printing for common replacement parts. Think of how much easier it would be to keep parts for discontinued products in "inventory" if the inventory were only a gigabyte on hard disk at every dealer.

So, 3D printers in every home---I'll wait and see. But, 3D printers at the Ford dealer and the local hardware store---seems like close to a sure bet to me.


Being an orthopedic oncologist I am excited at the prospect of 3D printers being able to print mega reconstruction prosthesis in complex lattice haversian canal structure to mimic bone and surface print them with hydroxyapatite to allow bone ingrowth. I don't know of a contemporary technology that allows you to do so!

All I want to do is copy and print those g**dam orthotic insoles that cost me $400 from my podiatrist. All it is is molded, shaped plastic.

But, I wonder what other body parts people will scan and 3d print.

It used to be that people would sit on the Xerox machine and print a picture of their butt; now, there are more 3d opportunities body opportunities.

What would you pay for a nude three dimensional body scan and 3d print of your favorite moviestar.

Whadya know. Someone already beat me to it.

Here is a link to a 3d head scan and 3d print of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah1067HXNdM

I can use this in my puppetshow of famous economists.

Being an orthopedic oncologist I am excited at the prospect of 3D printers being able to print mega reconstruction prosthesis in complex lattice haversian canal structure to mimic bone and surface print them with hydroxyapatite to allow bone ingrowth. I don’t know of a contemporary technology that allows you to do so!

"Maybe I’m blind, but I don’t yet see this as a technological game-changer. It seems more like a way of saving on transportation costs. To put it another way, what’s the huge gain of making everyone a manufacturing locavore?"

You miss the entire point. The impact will not be at the consumer level, it will be at the OEM level. Instead of limiting yourself to the idea of "3D Printing", research additive manufacturing. Look up "Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication". The ability to build parts layer-by-layer, tailoring the material composition, will open entirely new concepts for structures.

3d printing has been used for quite some time in rapid prototyping in many industries, including the automotive industry. (My experience is with Harley-Davidson.) What has been the contribution to GDP thus far from this technology? And, what does that growth line look like?

Yes there are some people who are talking their book and claiming 3d printing will do many (seemingly) unlikely things for end consumers (like printing their own replacement parts). That doesn't take away from the growth which has been occurring with this technology over the years.

I hadn't thought much about neighborhood print shops, but I think you might be right. There are still some economies of scale for having an expensive machine you might only use once a week, but needs to be maintained, refilled, etc.

However, I think even that will be a game changer for consumer products. Right now, design and manufacture are easily bundled services. With even neighborhood print shops, that process becomes a lot harder. Design is both the hardest thing to do right, yet because it is simply information, the easiest to transfer. How could a design-heavy company like Apple survive when anyone could download the plans for an apple phone from the internet then go to the mom and pop shop down the street and pay only the direct manufacturing costs. The 'one or two materials' limit might be a bit of a buffer against this, but if advances in robotics keep pace and you can get a general purpose assembly robot tied to a 2 or 3 3D printers specialized for different material types, then large computer electronics companies will facing a decline similar to record companies today.

I think there is a world market for about five 3D printers.

Over ten years ago I worked on 3D printing and it was already going commercial. A supplier to the auto industry adopted the technology for making sand casting-molds an thereby eliminated a large number of employees who made the molds for casting iron and other alloys. Printing molds makes them so inexpensive that the molds are broken after use instead of reused.

One place 3D printing is already having an impact is in research laboratories. There is an entire business of selling little gizmos to labs. For example, electrophoresis combs, pipettes, bottles, caps, holders and so on. Already, many laboratories are using their 3D printer, which is much cheaper than most of their gizmos, to produce these little things. This leads to all kinds of innovation because models can be shared, modified and combined to produce novel gizmos which are then put online for others to use. One popular item is a centrifuge attachment for a small motorized tool. Why an extra centrifuge when you can print one of your own, and it can be designed to your precise specifications?

In some ways this is the way UNIX became so pervasive. The original licensing cost from AT&T was $20,000 per installation, but it was free to universities. This led to wide spread distribution, and UNIX descendents like Linux and MacOS are now pervasive. (MS Windows has a lot of UNIX DNA in it, but did come from a different cultural tradition.)

Given that Al Gore succeeded in opening the internet to commerce in the early 90s, we've seen a lot of changes in 20 years, but we are going to see a lot more over the next several decades. For example, we are just starting to see shopping malls shrinking in response to increased online shopping. I can see a lot of restructuring flowing from 3D printing over the next 20 years, and it will be more than just cutting transportation costs.

The 3D printing industry has grown rapidly and seen lots of innovation recently, but in order for the technology to transform the industry and usher in a new era of mass customization (hi product volume, high product mix) and flexibility, combined with radically reduced manufacturing costs a few things are still needed: 1) improvements in material properties (e.g. structural, thermal, textural), 2) greater precision and resolution, and 3) scalability.

I'm with Tyler, and am not confident that putting 3D printers in every home will lead to any improvement in innovation. A printer in every home equals lots of pictures of cats and kids. A 3D printer in every home equals full scale models of cats and creepy homages to dead and alive relatives. Disturbing? Yes. Innovative? Not so much.

Entrepreneurship and good business strategy will drive innovation growth by properly integrating 3D printing technology to meet and create customer demand.

Medical purposes? Printing Organs or living materials?

D, I came across some claims that allegedly some sort of omnipotent stemcells could be shot and guided by lasers and arranged in such a way that they form simpler organs or structures like blood vessels or muscles. These structures can be used for replacements. Skin, bones and replacement tissues would be one possible market.
Just a replacement of a fractured hip for elderly would be a multimillion-dollar market for an aging society.
The technology is already used by dentist.
Not a gamechanger but I would see some potential in that field, and for those affected it will be a great improvement event if printing 3d obejcts may not move us out of the great stagnation

More arguments to explain how it could lead to some sort of political mutation: http://millenniumjournal.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/rumpala-additive-manufacturing-as-global-remanufacturing-of-politics.pdf

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