With 3D printers plummeting in price — many are just a few thousand dollars and you can actually find one or two models for about a grand — 3D printing seems like it’s about to go mainstream. And pundits are tripping over themselves to declare the ability to “print” real-world objects in your home the Next Big Thing. Should a 3D printer be on your wish list? Rick and Dave, not surprisingly, disagree.
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Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.
Rick: In the next 5-10 years, 3D printers will transform society like no other single technology. Yeah, it’s that big a deal. We’re on the cusp of a sea change, with these magic boxes poised to create new industries, kill others, and revolutionize the way we think about physical goods. This is serious the-future-is-now stuff; modern 3D printers are precursors to the replicators predicted by “Star Trek.” Mark my words, a decade from now I’ll be asking one for “Tea, Earl Gray, hot,” and it will appear out of fairly thin air.
Dave: Let me be very clear right up front: I desperately want that to be true. I grew up watching Star Trek too, and I am in love with the idea of cheap and easy printing of real-world stuff. But 5-10 years is way too optimistic. Maybe 25 years, if we’re lucky. And your example? We’ll probably have affordable interplanetary space travel long before you can replicate a cup of hot tea. Let me kill your dreams by starting with the easy stuff: 3D printing is about as user-friendly as MS-DOS was back in 1987. It’s only for die-hard hobbyists who are willing to search online for digital plans to mostly useless junk they can print just for the bragging rights to claim they 3D printed something. If some geek hasn’t already created the plans, you have to do it yourself, which requires getting a technical degree in CAD/CAM first. And none of that will get easier anytime soon. Certainly not in the next five years.
Rick: Well, obviously my tea example was slightly exaggerated for comic effect, which you missed because you think comedy is all rubber chickens and Adam Sandler movies. But your MS-DOS example is perfect: Yep, it was a complicated, hobbyists-only tool for the first few years, but then came Windows and bam: usability for all. It won’t be long before buying a 3D plan is as simple as buying a song on iTunes, and printing it is as simple as clicking “Print.” And you’ll be able to 3D-scan any existing object using a special scanner–if not your iPhone. What’s interesting is that all this may lead to renewed interest in PCs, as you’ll need some horsepower to process all these 3D models.
Dave: I guess I need to be the adult here and say that the 3D printing fairy is a myth. I’m curious what you think these easily downloadable 3D plans will be plans of. Because there are two key problems here. First, the most common things you’ll want to print will be someone’s existing intellectual property. Do you think Lego is going to let you print new bricks at home instead of buying a box of bricks in a store? Will Westinghouse let you print replacement parts for your dishwasher? Will Apple allow you to print so much as an iPhone cover? The answer is no, no they will not. These things you’ll want to print have commercial value. People are getting away with this kind of Wild West 3D printing today, and that might be giving you a false sense of immunity from intellectual property law. But as 3D printers get more affordable and common, companies will start to assert control over their IP and shut down online free-for-alls like Thingiverse.
Rick: That is incredibly short-sighted. While I agree the lawyers will get rich fighting IP battles, I have little doubt that some companies will embrace the idea of selling designs directly to consumers so they can dispense with pesky things like employees, production, storage, shipping, and so on. Like I said: industries will crumble. Think how the MP3 industry evolved: the music labels fought tooth and nail to prevent digital music from even existing, and now it’s their bread and butter. That said, there’s simply no way companies will be able to stop users from printing whatever they want, because everything will become open-source. If I need a spoon, I’ll print one using a freely available spoon design. And if I need a Lego brick, I’ll just supply my own specifications–no plan required. I’m glad you want all this to be true, because it will be.
Dave: I’m glad that the only things you plan to print are spoons and Legos, because that’s the other problem: That’s all you can print. Just ignore the fact that if you print a spoon that looks too much like one from Oneida’s Spring collection, they’ll sue your 3D printed butt. The more important issue is that 3D printers can’t really print much that’s genuinely useful. They can’t print metal or glass or wood or rubber. They can’t print electronic circuits (which, if you haven’t noticed, are in everything). They can’t even print moving parts. To make a simple mechanical gadget, you’d have to print all the individual parts and assemble it by hand, adding in elements that can’t be printed — screws, springs, rubber bands, gaskets, and so on. But I suppose you’re going to say that 5-10 years from now, 3D printers will miraculously have solved all these problems, despite the fact that this technology has existed since the 1980s without any meaningful improvement.
Rick: Why should I say it when you already did? Here, take my glasses, because obviously you’re having trouble seeing. Remember when dot-matrix printers could print only one font in one color? Right now, 3D printers can produce only plastic parts in one color. (And I’m talking about home/hobbyist printers; models at the manufacturing level can do way more.) But of course that will change as interest grows and technologies improve. Unfortunately, there’s a sinister downside to all this that we haven’t discussed yet, and that’s what happens when people start printing their own guns, knives, and other weapons. One guy has already proven it possible. Talk about the Wild West; we may well find out what happens to society if everyone is packing a pistol. On second thought, I want to go back to dot-matrix printers!
Dave: You do understand that technology isn’t magic, right? Just because you don’t know how a TV works, that doesn’t mean there are little people inside the box, acting out your picture stories for you. Same with 3D printers. You’re making so many leaps of logic here that surely your muscles must hurt. 3D printers are fundamentally limited. To get multiple colors, you need a mechanism that can feed multiple kinds of plastic. Which exists, as you point out, but is obscenely expensive. Moreover, what we know today as 3D printers will never be able to manufacture non-plastics; it’s a fundamental limitation of the underlying technology. To 3D print an iPhone will require completely new technologies that have absolutely nothing to do with today’s 3D printers, and are probably 100 years away–what you’re describing is The Diamond Age. And that 3D printed gun you’re freaking out about is ridiculous. People have been making homemade firearms for 200 years that work far more effectively than this single-use pistol that is more dangerous to the shooter than the target. And are you seriously afraid that someone is going to print a plastic knife at home? Seriously? Did you really just say that? The mall is filled with knives! That are legal to purchase! Why on earth would anyone need to print one at home? And so what if they did? Are dull, home-printed plastic knives somehow more dangerous than sharpened steel blades made by professional craftsmen?
Rick: You’re like a cranky old geezer yelling at new technologies to get off your lawn. For starters, 3D printing is not limited to plastics. Metals, synthetics, and even chocolate can now be printed–not in the home just yet, but it’s certainly feasible. Want a cool custom chocolate decoration for your daughter’s graduation party? Just print it. Need a skin graft for that scraped knee? Just print it. (Okay, that’s a little pie-in-the-sky for home users, but doctors in hospitals are doing that right now.) As for weapons, sure, maybe the knife thing is a little silly, but there’s a very real concern when people can print firearms (or at least firearm parts) that can’t be traced or registered. Ironically, it’ll probably be the gun lobby that steps in to help prevent that from happening (so gun sales aren’t impacted), but you must admit that as the technology improves, there will be little to stop, say, a kid from printing a working gun and taking it to school. I’m chilled by that thought, and if you had anything resembling a heart, you would be, too. But don’t worry: In a couple years I’ll 3D-print you one.
Dave: Let’s put aside worries about people printing their own firearms — in the scheme of things, that’s the single most impractical way possible to acquire a handgun, and ranks up there with worrying about being attacked by a swarm of killer tarantulas. And I don’t think tarantulas even travel in swarms. Pack, maybe. Check under your bed. In any event, your original premise was that 3D printing was going to revolutionize the world in the next 5-10 years. Poppycock. I certainly do not recommend running out to buy a printer anytime soon; printing-plastic is expensive, making home-printed tchotchkes more costly than what you can buy in a store. And getting plans to a specific thing you want to print is just too hard. And your magical 3D printer that will combine completely disparate printing technologies so you can make a chocolate covered MP3 player that dispenses replacement kidneys? Your grandkids will be lucky to see such a monstrosity. 5 years from now, 3D printers will be cheaper, sure. And they’ll commonly print plastic objects with maybe four different colors. But that spoon you wanted to make? It’s literally made of poison; 3D printers don’t use food-safe plastic. Go ahead and buy one, though; we need folks to help fund the development of six-color 3D printers.
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