3D printers have created amazing objects such as a violin, a dinosaur bone and even a bionic ear. While the technology boasts mind-boggling potential, it's still relatively new and has limitations. Before investing in a 3D printer or planning to develop a project on one, you may want to consider the disadvantages of the process.
Most 3D printers sold to hobbyists print objects that are smaller than 10 inches -- sometimes significantly smaller. Inventors hoping to prototype a machine part can make excellent use of the technology. On the other hand, you shouldn't think you can press a button and print out a chair.
The price of 3D printers is regularly decreasing, with many options in the low four to mid three figures. That price tag might be a bargain if you're going to start designing custom-made action figures that you print and sell for $100 each. However, if you're not planning to open a 3D printing shop and don't have a regular use for one, it can be a costly hobby. On top of the printer is the cost of the filament or "plastic ink" used to create the objects. While a pair of nutcrackers might only cost $2 to print, a plastic vase might be $8. Individually these objects can be a bargain, yet if you start pressing go on every notion you have, suddenly a few bucks grows into a few figures or more.
The capabilities of 3D printers are constantly improving, which means any unit you purchase today may be outdated within months and certainly in a year or two. The rods need to be oiled, the firmware and software regularly updated and the plastruder cleaned. Printers that print plastic can get clogged and mucked up. The heating element in the extruder can self-destruct. One nice thing about having a 3D printer is if a part breaks, you may be able to print a replacement, but this is not guaranteed.
Limited Material Options
Most 3D printers create objects using plastic filament. Printing with other materials, such as metal, is becoming more commonplace, but only high-end printers are currently capable of metal additive manufacturing. Printing complex pieces of plastic, such as a circuit board, is far beyond the capability of most 3D printers. Search the web and you may find printers that extrude chocolate and cheese, but these are just novelty items, at least for the time being. One day you may break a ceramic mug and then quickly print a replacement, but that day isn't quite here yet.
Printing a sturdy piece of plastic will require more than a handful of minutes. Printing a 6-inch pair of nutcrackers may take a few hours. While it's impressive to tell friends you printed a pair of nutcrackers, the time and energy invested may be worth more than just buying the object in a store.
Given the structure of many 3D printers, you need to print an object that supports its own weight. That may not seem like big concern, but when you want to print a flower, it's going to topple over halfway through printing. Many printers can't offer the level of detail you envision and few print in multiple colors. An object often needs to be painted to attain the desired shading.
Unquestionably, 3D printing is an amazing technology that will only get more impressive. Before spending too much time or money on one, appreciate what each does and understand its shortcomings.