Why 3D Printing Must Alter Its Course

Come on 3D Printing, give up on trying to be user friendly and return to your roots.

It is more than evident today that 3D Printers are in a similar course with Personal, Desktop Computers. In the very beginning, they needed huge rooms to operate. Then industrial Colossae utilized the new idea. After that, both technologies, slowly but surely, increased in reliability and speed, and simultaneously decreased in cost. At one point, both were affordable and easy to use, so that they invaded the people’s marketplace.

Right now 3D Printing is at the same phase as PC’s were in (roughly) the 1970’s. Most people think it is an exotic and costly hobby or procedure, while anyone using it will tell you otherwise. It is not cheap, granted, but it is much easier than what people perceive it to be.

Many people rightfully believe that 3D Printing will become a common household item. Not this year, not for everyone, but it will be common still. There are already many kick-started campaigns that try to make 3D Printers that have been designed, operationally and visually, to work and look like a household appliance.

These people are most probably correct up to a point. But, 3D Printing should never and will never function as a household appliance. It is my firm belief that 3D Printing belongs to the industries and the hobbyists, not the general public. I will prove my point by first listing why 3D Printers can never be household appliances, and will then explain why I hope the future 3D Printing will be centered around the industries.

Disclaimer: I am most definitely not the man to listen to about this topic. My 3 years experience with 3D Printing is too short to make a conclusive remark, and the fact that I am just 16 years old does not allow me to look too much back to the past and make entirely correct comparisons. Still, the points I make are considerable and should not be overlooked.

Also note that I am assuming that FDM/FFF printers will be the first ones to be considered appliances, since both the machines and the consumables are cheaper and easier to find.

Tiko, the most funded 3D Printer Project on Kickstarter.

Firstly, 3D printing, at its current state, does not match the desired “plug and play” model that consumers are after. I have seen Wanhao Duplicator i3 replicas being sold at Aldi, the biggest supermarket chain of Germany, as if they were fully operational appliances. Anyone that owns such a printer or any of its replicas, including myself, can agree that, although it is a mighty printer that can yield great results, it is by no means “plug and play”. It needs frequent maintenance, calibration, and cleaning. I, in particular, must clean the nozzle once a month, wash and apply hair spray on the bed every other weekend, level the base and the 2nd z-axis, and be sure that the temperature reached is ok and does not fluctuate greatly. This does not qualify 3D Printing as plug and play at any sense of the phrase.

Granted, it is one of the cheapest printers in the market. Of course an Ultimaker 2+ will be more reliable and precise, but still there are many problems with making 3D Printers home appliances.

The most important reason why 3D Printers are not for the general public is that, even in high-end models, there will be problems that one has to solve by him/herself, and there is never a manual for guidance (excluding the facebook groups and the Simplify3D Troubleshooting page).

For example, imagine that one print finishes with holes on top. An experienced user will know that he or she must increase the infill percentage and add more top layers to counter that. A novice user, that may have no incline towards solving such problems, and expecting models to come out perfect every time, will get frustrated at such qualitative deficiencies, and may even give up on 3D Printing entirely.

Even worse, what if the nozzle clogs? What if there is under-extrusion? What if the printer cannot reach its target temperature? What if it goes DNF? There are so many things that can go wrong with 3D Printers right now. Someone interested and affiliated with 3D Printing will have the patience and the time to figure out what went wrong, and try to fix it. In comparison, who among us would try to fix their broken toaster? Most of us would opt to buy a new one, if the problem is beyond our technical capabilities.

Of course that is a poor example, because of the price difference, but the same thing applies with Washing machines, for example. If it is broken, we send it to be repaired. As of now, I know of none specialized repairer corporation that can do the same thing for my printer. But if there is I may or may not need your help in the imminent future.

To recapitulate why 3D Printing should not be developed as a home appliance, it does not follow the “plug and play” model, and it does require the care, time, and troubleshooting of and by its user. It is a manufacturing machine, similar to a CNC. Its intended purpose is to make prototypes, not sculptures.

Even after these points are made, why would entire companies try to promote 3D Printers as home appliances? I believe the one and most important reason is that they exploit the naivety of the general public.
To explain, it is very often that schoolmates make such comments like “3D Printing must be very complicated/difficult/costly”, and I assure them it is much less so than they think.

People think it is some kind of magical device that can create anything they want, and as a result they have created exaggerated visions of what 3D Printers and what people using them do. They get very easily amazed by the idea of having the power to make anything I design, while in reality, it is a much clearer process than what it is believed to be. Another side-effect of this is that I get some print requests that require 20 microns layer height or less, and it is very hard to explain to them why that kind of requests is impossible.

Another part of this fact is that people think that 3D Printing is expensive, and are willing to pay a lot of money for 3D Printed objects. It is indeed expensive, no doubt, but people still exaggerate over the price they are willing to pay. I would be lying if I said that I haven’t exploited this fact a little bit (just a little), but I have met people and respected companies that produce prints of questionable quality for a price 10 times the plastic they consumed during printing.

As long as some people can get tricked, scammed, mystified, and exploited, 3D Printing will continue to be falsely promoted as a plug and play technology.

That is why 3D Printing is not suitable as a home appliance. The proper home for 3D Printers is in the hands of dedicated makers, as it is today, and in the hands of large manufacturing corporations. For some reason, corporations have been reluctant in incorporating this new technology, and prefer to stick to their old machines.

This is understandable, since most companies have given millions in the development of specialized prototyping machines, and will not reject all of it and adopt 3D Printing any time soon. I know of only 1 Korean company that came here, in Greece, for business and carried along a 3D Printed prototype.

In Greece, at least, 3D Printing is majorly used by artists for organic designs, and not industrialists, for part designs. This is a very saddening fact, since 3D printing fails to show its dominance in the sector it was designed to operate on, rapid prototyping.

To give some background information, and why these statistics annoy me, 3D Printing was first introduced in an SLA form (StereoLithography Apparatus, hence the file extension .stl), as a new technology for rapid prototyping. It took many years to match the precision of other technologies, like CNCs’ and Milling machines’, but in all its recent past it has been cheaper than any of these technologies.

Printing room
Huge industrial 3D Printing (Could also be described as a Printer room) http://www.voxeljet.de/en/systems/3d-druckervx20000/

3D Printing has been developed as a method for rapid prototyping parts that are to be qualitatively tested. Example given: Printing a model spoiler for a new car and testing it in a wind tunnel, or printing a new package or bottle for a product and doing some QA testing. It is not targeted towards making parts ready to handle mechanical stresses. It is the cheapest way of prototyping, while yielding a good-enough representation of the final part. Household Makers took advantage of its premise and used it to print sculptures and all sorts of other stuff. But, its original role is still to make prototypes. With 3D Printing, it takes some cents and some hours to make a prototype, instead of the hundreds of dollars and the many days it takes to have the same part ready through a mold.

3D Printing has to return to its roots and fulfill its original goal, to be the best prototyping technology around.

It also makes sense in the way that, if 3D printing is adopted by large firms, and if they see the potential it still holds, they will invest millions in R&D for it. They will devote such large sums of money that no startup or 3D Printer Company could ever imagine. Imagine if Ferrari or Mercedes found out that, if they invest a bit on this new technology, they could build a new model Formula 1 race car in a matter of days and test it right afterwards. They could even make small changes without dismantling the whole car when testing its aerodynamics.

I acknowledge that there are special programs that can do exactly this type of aerodynamics testing, like SolidWorks’ Flow Simulation, that also yields precise quantitative results, with not production cost whatsoever, but there is still the need to test each model in the real world, where the temperature and the air composition is never ideal or uniform.

A standard production cycle. If any of these steps fails, it starts again from the beginning. 3D Printing is just a step.

Move away from being an appliance and go back to your roots.

So, as a final, concluding remark, I firmly believe and support the view that 3D Printing should not be supplied and presented to the general public ad an appliance, but should be appreciated by the large corporations as a prototyping machine with outstanding capabilities and efficiency. That is why it deserves a future much brighter and more more meaningful than just being an appliance.

That is the future I want 3D printing to follow, but it is up to the big investors and the market forces to decide.

To close this, I call upon anyone that has something to say about this matter, whether he or she agrees with my points, disagrees with my views, or wishes that inappropriate events happen to me, to write a response. I am interested in seeing what the 3D printing community believes the ideal future of 3D printing is. Any view, however negative that is, is encouraged.

Have a good time printing.


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