3D Printing Industry

Is 3D Printing Still Cool?

In today’s editorial, Angela takes on a question she’s grappled with a lot lately. Opinions expressed are the author’s own.

A couple of years ago, Shapeways faced a question that a lot of people had just then begun to ask: “Is consumer 3D printing overhyped?” Since Pete took on that controversy, a lot has happened in the world of 3D printing. Big manufacturers have invested in making 3DP part of their bottom line. Shapeways has grown, and a lot of players of all sizes have entered the market.

But, is 3D printing still cool? I’d argue that it is — and it isn’t.

What’s cool?

The feats that 3D printing make possible are getting both loftier and more normal: printing in space, printing biological matter for use in transplants and rehabilitation, printing chocolate, printing houses, printing teeth. Soon, there may be few parts of our lives that aren’t touched by 3D printing.

The Apis Cor printer, literally printing a house

If you have access to what 3D printing can actually do, it’s incredibly cool. If your 3D prints are the product of world-class machines and specialized processes, and available in a huge range of materials. If you can create complex prints, even ones with hundreds of interlocking parts. Without Shapeways, most of this stuff would be inaccessible to the average person. Working at the company that makes all this possible, it’s hard for me to see 3D printing as anything but cool.

A machine that walks, propelled by wind, all printed in a single piece of Strong & Flexible nylon plastic for Theo Jansen

What’s not cool?

Most innovations around 3D printing are really industrial business innovations. The printers in question cost more — and require more processing work — than home printers, and that’s because they’re just a lot more capable, versatile, and robust (and clunky, and expensive…). But, the “cool factor” of 3D printing has often centered around the dream of bringing home the equivalent of a Star Trek replicator. That vision is a little tarnished now, thanks to the fact that the real replicators are in factories, and desktop replicators are, well, complicated

Industrial 3D printers (and the companies with access to them) are leading the pack in terms of improving print quality and increasing the number of materials available for 3D printing.

A desktop 3D printing disaster

The verdict is…

3D printing is cooler than it’s ever been — except that it’s not getting there the way most people thought it would. It would be amazing to have a machine on your kitchen counter that could create the objects you need every day, in whatever material you desire. Instead, a platform like Shapeways can bring your ideas to life on demand, uniting a slew of technologies and processes in a single space. And, for the moonshots, big industry players are applying 3D printing in ways we’d never have imagined. Whether you’re printing a phone case or a jet engine part, 3D printing is still probably cooler (and more useful) than you realize.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

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