3D printing was supposed to be the next big thing. It offered easy manufacturing from home for the creation and customisation of almost anything we could imagine. But unfortunately, the 3D printing revolution didn’t happen as many of us expected it to. Here’s why.
While they are an amazing premise, the majority of home 3D printers are pretty slow when manufacturing things. Depending on multiple factors such as the quality and size of the printer, as well as the size and intricacy of the object being printed, it can take anywhere from several hours to multiple days to finish printing. Even smaller objects with a lot of detail can take over an hour to print, and longer if you want it in the highest possible quality, so mass production at home isn’t as realistic as many of us expected.
Most 3D printing hardware is big, bulky, and noisy during operation, whereas the printing software they come installed with is clunky, unintuitive, and far from what most people would call “user friendly”. The 3D printing chambers on most of these machines are also pretty small, which limits the size of objects which can be printed. The only way to print an object that are larger than the inside of a print chamber is to break them up into separate parts before joining them together during post-production. Not only does this make things more difficult, but it also increases the total cost due to wastage and adds extra time to an already time consuming process.
There have been a number of advancements in 3D printing technology over the past decade, they still have issues with accuracy. Depending on the type of printing machinery, process, or materials used, some combinations will have lower tolerances which causes the final object to be slightly different to the original designs. Some 3D printing may only have a discrepancy of around 0.1mm, but it’s still enough of an error to print any object that requires exact measurements. Some of these tolerances can be allowed for and then modified by hand after printing, but this only adds additional cost and more time to the process.
During last century’s industrial revolution, the traditional methods of manufacturing eventually became an incredibly refined and efficient process. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case yet when it comes 3D printing which is quite simply not streamlined enough yet. Add to that the expensive machinery required, the whole process costs far too much for it to be a truly viable option right now. And it’s certainly not a practical option compared to other existing methods of creating 3D parts such as injection moulding, which allows for extremely cheap objects to be manufactured.
When using a 3D printer to create an object from scratch, it is made by adding layers on top of layers from bottom to top until complete. While this technology has been a major step forward for manufacturing as a whole, the materials are still somewhat limited, with most 3D printers relying on plastic. It can be easily heated enough until it reaches melting point, which then allows it to be deposited in 3-dimensional layers to create the final object. Unfortunately, there are a lot of different types of plastics available that vary in strength and hardness, so you can never be sure of how breakable each 3D printed part actually is when completed.
3D printing in general can be a complicated headache for anyone who decides to give it a go, especially the uninitiated with no experience with the basics of manufacturing. Not only do the physical 3D printers need to be set up correctly, but you also need to source 3D designs of whatever you want to print from an open source website, before downloading the file to your computer and transferring it to the printing machine. And that’s before you even start the machine calibrations and tests which have to be done before you can even start the actual printing process, which is often… problematic to say the least. Finally, once you print your design, you then have to clean the equipment, unload the plastic filament, and remove any extra printed material. what’s left from and mistakes is a mess of wasted plastic. It’s definitely not the “click and print” ideal we expected.
The whole idea behind 3D printing is genuinely a truly exciting concept, but it’s just not viable yet. Most people were focused on what the potential future of 3D printing technology might be, rather than what would be possible in the next few years. And as with most new technology, the hype with 3D printing was much bigger than the consumer interest actually was.
Everyone was excited about the concept of autonomous 3D manufacturing at home at the press of a button, but before that happens we need to find ways to make it more affordable, with better software, and more reliable technology. And without some massive changes to the reality of this tech, there’s no way it can ever live up to the hype of that concept.