Why are they so popular?
Additive technologies have been under development for more than 30 years. Why only now are they becoming so popular among the media and general public? Well, major patents for FDM technology (fused deposition modeling) expired several years ago which resulted in an explosion of the desktop 3D printing market. Prices of the machines fell dramatically and today almost anyone can afford a desktop FDM 3D printer. However, 3D printing is developing much slower than you think. Because we’ve been exposed to a lot of news and information about the technology in a very short time it seems as it is going faster than it is.
The future of 3D printing
The future is in the industrial application and medicine will probably benefit the most. Because of the need to quickly develop an individual product for every patent, 3D printing will have a huge advantage over the conventional methods of production.
In aerospace industry 3D printing will enable the production of strong and lightweight components that cannot be made using conventional machines. When it comes to the rest of the industry, 3D printers will continue to be a major factor in product development and prototyping but they will never send traditional manufacturing into extinction. Then why is the next industrial revolution being announced in the media? The revolution that will democratize manufacturing. Will there be a 3D printer in every household?
Everyone will print everything in 3D?
Manufacturers of desktop 3D printers are trying to convince us that today anyone can print their own tools, household items, accessories and toys. It's true that desktop 3D printers give everyone this opportunity. But is it really that easy?
In the past year I have made about fifty CAD models for 3D printing. Some were printed in plastic, steel, bronze and even gold and ceramics. However, it took me 6 years of CAD modeling experience to be able to print „anything I want“. Besides, modeling the shape is only a part of the whole story.
Every model requires a certain amount of engineering approach and countless hours of reading about the properties and limitations of individual printers and materials. There are several online databases where users of desktop 3D printers can download free 3D models made by others. But it does not solve the problem od 3D modeling because the majority of those 3D models are of a very low quality and are not even printable. At the end of the day you will either have to learn CAD modeling or pay someone else to do it for you.
The first 3D printed object that I held in my hand was a small plastic cup. If a product of this low quality came off the production line in some factory, it would be thrown in the trash can. But I was impressed by that cup because it was made by a technology I had never seen before. I think many people have the same experience when they first see a 3D printed object. No matter how bad that product looks, we want to believe that it is something special because we are being told that this is the technology that will change the world. The current excitement about desktop 3D printers will soon fade away when people realize how difficult it is to make something of good quality and functional that can't already be found in a nearby store.
What about the more advanced SLS 3D printers?
Several key patents for the SLS (selective laser sintering) technology expired in the middle of 2014. Many anticipated that prices would drop and that we would soon have desktop SLS printers. After all, that's what happened several years ago with the FDM technology. It's been a year now and SLS 3D printers are still far away from home usage. They are much more complex and dangerous machines that use powder and a powerful laser. Their prices may indeed drop but that doesn't mean you should put them in your living room.
3D printing is still a very young and immature technology and too much is expected of it right now. It is slowly finding its place in various industries but to majority of people it will not be any more useful than a sewing machine, bread machine or a juicer. Desktop 3D printers will be used by enthusiasts and only a minority of them will design their own models from scratch.