Do we even want desktop 3D printing?

There is a lot of hype currently about desktop 3D printing. A lot of people are saying that the dream is to be able to make anything with desktop 3D printers.

I love the entire “be able to make anything.” But, why “desktop 3D printing”? Why is the predefined form factor part of the dream?  

  • Is it because paper printers went from large expensive things to cheap desktop things? Are we stuck in this allegory?
  • Is it because when you’re making a 3D printer it is much easier to make one with a small build volume than a large build volume? Is it therefore because making a desktop 3D printer is so much more achievable than a larger one?
  • Is it because a cheap printer is important and so smaller ones are advantageous in this regard?
  • Is it because the Star Trek Replicators are desktop sized?
  • Is it because this is a good size for a consumer electronic device?
  • Is it because of the development of cell phones and other technologies that seem to indicate that small is more advanced?
  • Is it because making them this size would increase the adoption rate because more people could fit them in their homes easier?
  • Or is this desktop somehow in some other way important? Somehow crucial to the entire endeavor?

What am I missing?

My fridge is not desktop sized. My washing machine is not desktop sized. In fact my washing machine would be near useless if it were desktop sized and it could only wash two socks at a time. My dishwasher would be less efficient as a device and less useful to me if it were smaller. Bicycles & ovens would also suck as a smaller devices. I’m not saying that someone will not find a use for a tiny fridge or tiny oven: just that the most useful versions of these devices tend to not fit on your desktop.

We operate on a human scale and so the things we will print will be in this scale too. We make small things with 3D printing currently because big things are expensive. But, I totally want to make big things too: houses, couches, cars etc.. I want to be able to make anything. So why should the technological development of 3D printing be limited by a seemingly arbitrarily chosen form factor? Would “backpack portable” 3D printing or fridge sized 3d printing not be easier or better?

Creative Commons, Attribution Le Vent Le Cri.


  1. George Bell

    Yeah, and I don’t want that white powder all over my house! Desktop SLS does not sound good!

  2. Dan

    If they come up with a fridge sized 3D printer that costs the same as a fridge that is interesting. Maybe the printer manufacturers should concentrate there instead of the desktop.

  3. Michael Williams

    How much better would your washer, dryer, fridge, house, car be if they were collapsible? (Jetson’s anyone?) Those things are large for necessity. I wouldn’t expect to see a 3D printed washer any time soon, but I could see a replacement knob being printed at home to make a simple repair and save a trip to the local retailer.

  4. Dan

    Maybe 3D printers should be embedded in the architecture. Like a robotic arm with a print head on the end that can turn your whole garage into a 3D printer.

  5. David Drummond

    I think people are using “desktop” as a synonym for “personal”, in the same way that desktop computers and personal computers are roughly synonymous. You’re right that some people may be really specific about targeting the desktop; perhaps that is limiting. But “desktop” implies things by association: you can carry it home from the store; you can in principle set it up yourself; it operates more-or-less independently from other things aside from your computer. None of those things is true (at least for most people) of a clothes washer, for example. “Desktop,” then, is an aspirational term. I wouldn’t fret too much about it.

    I do want a desktop 3D printer. It’s a very human size. In fact, the size of a human is about the size of the biggest thing that could sit on (or, as with many desktop computers, under) a desk. Sure, we want to print houses and beds and cars and couches. But given the longstanding human association of size with permanence and cost, we will print those big things very infrequently, making a personal printer for that scale a poor investment. Small stuff, you can imagine being higher frequency: print a birthday gift, a pair of shoes, fashion accessories, hobby parts, a book, a ball, lunch…

    Sure, argue for disposable houses and cars. I don’t buy it, not for a long enough time that this whole notion of arguing about the format of 3D printers will seem quaint.

  6. Julian Gall

    As I look around my room, almost every “thing” that is not furniture would fit in a six inch cube or smaller. Exceptions are my laptop and … my desktop printer. The ability to make parts up to, say, 8 by 6 by 2 inches is the ability to make almost everything we use. Commercial plastic mouldings have been no bigger than that until recent times.

    Also, I don’t have room for another fridge!

  7. Odd

    In one sense I guess it’s a good thing there’s desktop size talk…as it’s likely to make the technology cheaper.

    But to be honest – the whole idea of having everything yourself is one of the main reasons our society is likely to go extinct. (climate change/war/corporatism)

    Unless you have a massive 3d model turnover – why not appreciate Shapeways as the full on service it is?

    People seem to forget it’s handy to have access to a team of people refining the software, refining the process, chasing cost, chasing tech…all while I’m concentrating on building better objects. ;)

    The future is working together!

    cheers //O.

  8. George Bell

    In 20 years, if it goes like 2D printing, we will be able to buy cheap 3D printers for under $100. However the “ink cartridges” will only last 10 minutes and cost $500 each! Plus the printer will break after a few months. Seriously, I think we have gone through at least 10 cheap 2D printers in the past 10 years.

  9. Casey Sharpe

    In a perfect world, it would be like printers are today, in some ways. We print the little things at home if we need it quick and not as good, and then we have a shapeways in every city (like kinkos!) to print big & important things for us.

  10. Glenn Slingsby

    Yes, I think “desktop” is a misnomer; I don’t think we’ll see the rise of desktop machines printing out very small models/products. I do see a time when a hobbyist / entrepreneur / inventor / might have a dishwasher size machine putting out fairly large items. I don’t see them being cheap for a long time.

    Just as I go to a professional company to print out my archival giclee copies of paintings so I will outsource my 3D printing. I simply don’t do enough to justify buying my own expensive machine.

    Another point to consider: Printing a document at home is very different to printing a 3D model – right now it takes a lot more work to get that model to the printer. Perhaps we’ll see the day when the printer is hooked up to the Internet and the home user can simply select from a huge base of “things” to print… with many different materials to choose from, of course.

  11. Danny Thorpe

    This sounds an awful lot like the CEO of Digital Equipment Corp around 1980: “People don’t want a computer on their desk.” Where is DEC now? Toast.

    1. tamaness

      He’s not saying “people don’t want 3D printing,” He’s saying “why are we limiting ourselves to the desktop form factor for 3D printing?”

  12. simon

    i want a desktop sized 3D printer because i live in a small house and am unlikely to make anything bigger than a teapot anyway.

    The analogy to desktop paper printing works well. For most domestic applications A4 works fine. If i want to print a poster, i go to a professional. There’s room in this world for both.

  13. K Wiley

    I’ve seen the concept of personal 3D-printers or fabricators as household appliances in a lot of sci-fi fiction over the years. They tend to be “appliance” sized things, which I’ve envisioned being built into a wall, like one’s oven. They tended to have an aperture, or working volume, equivalent to an oven, as well.

    An excellent example, IMO, of this technology reaching an ubiquitous level can be found in Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age, although it operates on a molecular fabrication concept instead of a “printing” concept… but the idea presented there was that a home fabricator was something that most people had, and that the raw materials for it were readily available, but its size was limited. There were places that seemed like a cross between a corner store and a post office where one could print larger items for a fee.

    A personal fabricator provides a level of immediacy, and saves the cost of transportation and/or shipping. If the raw materials were fully recyclable onsite (ie. having one machine to make items and another machine to break those items down into component parts again), then the whole concept becomes extremely efficient. I would personally like to have something like that to produce plates, glasses, flatware, small bits of creative “sculpture” artwork, simple tools, and basic parts that I could use in my hobby-level building projects. When a plate or glass was broken, or if I tired of a particular sculpture (or found a better one on the internet), or I changed my mind on what size of hex-nut-connector I needed for my home project, I could simply drop the bits back into the recycler and there would be no waste.

    As fabrication technology becomes more robust, I envision stores the size and ubiquity of Wal-mart or Home Depot that produce their basic products in dynamic, automated, on-site factories, rather than shipping them in from China. The store could maintain a baseline stock of items on the floor for immediate purchase (and immediate re-manufacture), provide a simple interface for customization or modifications (ready for pickup the next day), and offer fully custom manufacturing as a premium service.

    These big box stores would have far more sophisticated manufacturing capabilities than any home device could – just like Kinkos has bigger and higher-quality printers than most home users today.

  14. Anonymous

    Desktop as a label implies a level of finish/usability. I’ve been struggling with a MakerBot for the past month trying to get it to reliably print models and have only managed to complete 6 small objects out of at least 40 attempts. Frustration level is quite high at this point, but I persist because I signed up for a prototype machine that I could take apart and understand. The word “desktop” has associations with a much more polished and novice user friendly product. It’ll probably all come down to cost and learning curve. Most makers have a dremel but fewer have a table saw. There’s a market for both and there’s a price point for both. With Project Natal, I expect that there will be an explosion in people who use the 3D camera to scan objects at home and want to make small self sculptures etc. It’s only going to get easier from here. I want one. It’s the price point that will determine whether I do.

  15. Greg Banville

    Ditto what K Wiley said about “The Diamond Age” and things.
    Besides, in that story, and in concept movies I’ve seen a big point is that build volume need not mean that only small objects can be made. Once printed things can be unfolded or inflated with air, water or sand, depending on how sophisticated the design and printing process is, and how much weight or stability you want.

    Though I’ll admit that a larger build volume would probably be more attractive. Yet I don’t see anything larger than say 2′ x 3′ x 4′ being used very often. And possibly smaller if things are made to be assembled rather than printed as a solid piece. (Or solid shell.)

    Also, when it comes to printing very large things, like a house, I thought the idea was that the adobe depositor just went around on wheels, extending its legs as the wall grew higher.

    I find Odd’s post, #7 a little self-contradictory. How can you be both against corporations and for purchasing a service from “a team of people refining the software, refining the process, chasing cost, chasing tech…”

    Not that I haven’t said clueless things about corporations in the past, but isn’t there an incongruity here?

    And aside from that, how might my using a desktop 3d printer cause more atmospheric pollution than making use of one overseas and having the objects shipped to me? Isn’t that the situation now? Or where are Shapeways printers located?

    If there really is a global crisis derived from my use of power or consumption of industrial products, then how can ANY use of experimental technologies for my own artistic expression or educational hobby use be justified? Logically I should chuck the idea of playing with electric polygons and plastics that harden under ultra-violet light and switch to clay that hardens when air-dried or take up wood carving.

    If we are going to go on experimenting with new technologies and indulging in hobbies that consume power and resources then we may have to admit that we cannot tell ahead of time which emerging technologies might become more sustainable in time.

    And if, “The future is working together!” Then why not just work together on open-source applications like RepRap? Or perhaps on cooperative organizations to help bring the people who can run them together with people who would like to use one?

    The most attractive thing about the idea of a personal 3d printer, especially if it is a do-it-yourself project, or capable of printing its own parts is that it makes a little bit more anarchy possible. I don’t really want to have to ask anyone’s permission to print something. I don’t really want to have to swear that I have a license from the copyright holder to print something if I want to. I don’t care how liberal the climate of developed countries is right now, on principle, I do not want to have to rely on others tolerance to decide whether something I want to print is decent or not.

    Shapeways has early-on shown timidity and possibly vulnerability to designers who want to extend intellectual property into the realm of physical objects. The continual extension of this excuse for control over people’s lives, labor and materials into ever more areas, and the cooperation of various institutions and companies in agreeing to donate their time and resources to augment the police power of the state in enforcing such claims is a disturbing trend. Home auto-fabrication is one of the most exciting of a few technological possibilities for combating it.

    Most of all, I just wish that printing a 3d object could be as convenient as printing a map or a receipt. I just want to have what I’ve made right away, or as close to it as possible.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t like that Shapeways is available as an option for 3d printing. In fact, I wouldn’t otherwise know where to go. I tend to agree with others that in time there may be a difference between things you 3d print at home and at service bureaus. But it is obvious we aren’t there yet. 3D prints are still unfinished, prototypes and often a little rough looking and it requires a lot of craft work to get them to look as nice, smooth, clean or colorful as the models they are often based on.

  16. Odd

    “I find Odd’s post, #7 a little self-contradictory. How can you be both against corporations and for purchasing a service…”

    My second reply, previous try removed it seems…

    There is no contradiction.

    Running a cooperative with a social conscience – for profit – just not at the expense of the environment and the poor, would do just that.

    We all know what happens when we let greed roam free ;)

  17. Alfred Williams

    I think that Shapeways is a wonderful first step towards making 3D printing available to the masses. I don’t think that they will become as ubiquitous as desktop printers, but it sill be nice to see where the technology leads. One thing is for sure though, that the tech will remain expensive for several years to come, due to technology patents.

    Several people have already built edible models out of stuff like sugar, chocolate, cornstarch, etc. which leads one to believe that one could build a device to make 3d objects out of just about any powder/dust type material. I would love the option to print ceramics, that is somewhat a hobby of mine. I already own a small kiln with about 1.5 cubic feet of space inside. If I had a machine that could lay down clay dust as a medium, then print the item using water as a binder, I could let it sit for a while, brush the dust off the greenware object, let it harden, and fire it as I would any other piece. And I could use a grinder to grind up any unwanted or broken greenware back into powder…

    By the way, I *Love* that dryer photo, LOL! Someone at Shapeways has a very unique sense of humour :-D

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