3D printing could be the next big thing…someday

V3's Dan RobinsonEarlier this week, analyst firm Gartner poured some cold water on the hype surrounding 3D printing by issuing a report claiming that many of the technologies involved are still five to 10 years away from the mainstream. Furthermore, consumer adoption will be eclipsed by business and medical applications that have more compelling use cases in the short term, Gartner said.

This isn’t necessarily knocking 3D printing, but merely recognising that it is a bit more complex than reports in the press might have led everyone to believe, and that the technology still needs to develop more before it reaches the stage where the average household might be using it in the same way they use mobile phones or the internet now.

Actually, low-cost 3D printing has already come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Previously, such fabrication technologies were eye-wateringly expensive and thus largely available only as a prototyping technology used in the manufacturing industry.

Only in the past decade or so have desktop-scale devices that can ‘print’ objects using types of plastic come onto the market, pioneered here in the UK by the RepRap project founded by former academic Dr Adrian Bowyer.

Now, there are myriad 3D printers on the market, varying in price from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands. Most of these are similarly designed to produce objects by melting ABS or Polylactic acid (PLA) plastic filament to build them up layer by layer.

As Gartner points out, 3D printing is not about just a single technology. Being able to fabricate objects only in plastic limits what can be produced, requiring users to turn to other sources for components that have to be made from metal or other materials, for example.

While there are projects working towards delivering low-cost devices that can work with other materials, these are likely to be some time coming to market, which is one reason for Gartner’s prediction regarding the timescale for mainstream adoption.

Another reason is that creating a 3D object from scratch is a non-trivial task requiring specialist software and skills. Because of this, many of the lower-cost 3D printers seem to be aimed at a usage model where buyers access an online store or catalogue of ready-designed objects rather than creating their own using CAD tools or suchlike.

In this respect 3D printing can be thought of as at a fairly early stage of its development, comparable to the days of the first microcomputers when enthusiasts had to assemble the hardware themselves using a soldering iron, and often had to key in the software manually afterwards.

However, the potential for 3D printers does seem to be enormous. For consumers or small businesses, it holds out the promise of being able to manufacture items themselves for the first time, and perhaps compete with larger vendors for business.

It’s easy to imagine small businesses setting up shop as a bureau to produce small numbers of custom-made items for consumers or other small businesses, perhaps even charging for the design work as well as manufacturing the end product.

Of course, there are dire warnings from some that broad uptake of 3D printing in the home could spell the end for some manufacturing industries, but as Dr Bowyer pointed out at a 3D printing event earlier this year, this is not an unusual occurrence in the history of economic and technological evolution. He cited the traditional photography industry as an example, which has “disappeared, almost unremarked and unmourned” since the advent of digital cameras.

So while 3D printers are still costly items used mostly for prototyping or by early adopter enthusiasts, the day may come when you can simply download and print that snazzy new case design for your smartphone instead of buying it, and 3D printing may be as commonplace as streaming your favourite TV shows over the internet is today.

This may not happen next year or the year after but, given the appeal of 3D printing, it seems certain to happen eventually. Unless certain vested interests decide that it is too dangerous a technology for us mere mortals to be allowed, of course.