A new AP article about 3D printers has been published via NPR and many other sites this morning, and it has me absolutely frustrated. It mentions a lot of the neat things 3D printers have been used for recently, but also speculates that 3D printing technology will replace entire industries and significantly impact economies worldwide.
Speculation is fine, but ignorant or uninformed speculation is dangerous. Here’s a quote from Dartmouth College business professor Richard D’Aveni:
Imagine a soldier on a firebase in the mountains of Afghanistan. A squad is attacked by insurgents. The ammunition starts to run out. Is it worth waiting hours and risking the lives of helicopter pilots to drop it near you, or is it worth a more expensive system that can manufacture weapons and ammunition on the spot?
Okay, so in this scenario there’s no ammunition, but the soldiers would have a 3D printer, supporting equipment, a sufficient working and finishing environment, enough power, and ample supply of printing media?
Despite how versatile and important 3D printers are today and will be in the foreseeable future, they aren’t magical, and they have very real limits.
Limits as to what materials they can print with, limits as to how quickly they can print, limits as to how precise they can print, limits as to how little resources they require.
Going back to the battlefield scenario, let’s say the 3D printer needs maintenance. Where does the replacement part come from, another 3D printer? Not going to happen. Take a look inside a commercial-grade 3D printer and you won’t see any 3D-printed parts in there. Even if, or when, a military-grade 3D printer is designed and built, it too will have limits.
3D printers won’t replace current manufacturing technologies, but will complement them.
Every time I hear about 3D printed food I cringe. Yes, some 3D printers produce edible prints, but there’s a world of difference between a delicately detailed chocolate pattern and real food.
Let’s say a company develops some innovative new organic and edible print material that could create something that resembles real food. It would still be cheaper, easier, and quicker to buy real food.
Don’t get me wrong, there are great things being done with 3D printers, and the innovations and advancements won’t stop coming anytime soon. But there is also a lot of hype that is leading people to form exaggerated expectations and beliefs. Yes, they might appear at battlefield firebases sometime soon, but they won’t be printing ammunition or replacement parts for heavy equipment.
Some people think that there will be a 3D printer in every home, similar to how we all have computers, printers, microwaves, toasters, and other such appliances. My feeling is that while this is a possibility, we’re more likely to see commercial 3D printers at every Staples, FedEx/Kinko’s, and other office supply stores and printing shops, where you upload and pay for your print at home and just pick it up at the local store.
I guess the idea of a 3D printer in every home printing out ammunition, doodads, and cheeseburgers just makes for entertaining news, even if far-fetched and still in the realm of science fiction fantasy.
In a few years there will be far more that 3D printers can do, but there will still be limits dictating what they cannot and should not be used for. The progress will continue to be amazing, but just don’t expect for 3D printing technology to collapse entire mass manufacturing economies.