Is 3D printing the next big thing or the next big bust?

Is 3D printing the next big thing or the next big bust?

It’s being called the Industrial Revolution 2.0; “Manufacturing’s Big Bang.” Forget about “Made in China,” the future will be constructed in your living room — everything from cars, food, guns, drugs, even human organs. If you believe the hype surrounding 3D printing, which reached a crescendo last month with the opening of the first MakerBot retail store and the New York Maker Faire, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re entering a Star Trek-like age of endless possibility.

Also known as Additive Manufacturing, 3D printing is the process by which objects are created by “printers” spraying carefully calibrated jets of various raw material, guided by digitized instructions. Plastics, metals, and ceramics are the most popular materials, but new ones are being used all the time. This is making stuff at the most fundamental level. Suddenly, we have this bridge, this physical extension of the virtual world, where, with the right material combinations, you could build almost anything. We’re nowhere close to things like semiconductor chips, at least on a smaller scale, but does it feel impossible? Not with this technology. You could almost see us getting to a point where we could build things molecule by molecule, which is exactly what Professor Lee Cronin is doing when he experiments with 3D printing on a chemical level. More on him in a minute. 

But about that hype: The Next Big Thing never seems to play out like it’s supposed to. The more industry-breaking, the more unpredictable, the more too-good-to-be-true-sounding it is, the more often it disappoints. With raw, burgeoning technologies, it’s hard to separate the fact from fantasy. The technology research firm Gartner dubbed this the “Hype Cycle,” and created a methodology to map the “common pattern of over-enthusiasm, disillusionment and eventual realism that accompanies each new technology and innovation.” 

3D printing currently resides somewhere between wireless power (seemingly reasonable) and augmented reality (totally crazy) — right at the tip of “inflated expectations.” No one’s printing cars, people. Well, actually they are, but not on a reasonable scale. And that whole “printing a gun” thing? Well, we’ll believe it when it happens. Remember, just because 3D printing can do something, doesn’t make it realistic or even fun. People can already “build” guns, with machinery and wood and other basic elements you can source locally. If a 3D printer doesn’t make that process significantly easier, or even safe — we’re mainly dealing cheap plastics right now after all — then it’s kind of useless. 

That means we’ll soon enter the “trough of disillusionment,” along with virtual worlds (remember “Second Life”?). In other words, if you’ve been drooling over the possibility of torrenting Xanax or printing out the Ultimate Driving Machine, you’re in for disappointment — at least for a while. 

“In many ways, today’s 3D printing community resembles the personal computing community of the early 1990s,” Michael Weinberg , a lawyer with the advocacy group Public Knowledge, recently told the Economist. Just like the IBM mainframes of old that filled whole rooms, industrial-sized 3D printers have been around for a while, but were inaccessible and wholly impractical for the masses. Now, smaller, more affordable versions are now available, and they do simple things well. But they’re slow and clunky, and usually limited to basic plastics. 3D printing remains largely the provence of hackers and hobbyists, far from mainstream.

Bre Pettis, 39, is trying to change all of that. Affable, charismatic and totally passionate about, you know, making stuff, some are already calling him the Steve Jobs of desktop manufacturing. He’s the founder of MakerBot Industries, the producer of the world’s most popular 3D printers for regular folk. The company’s latest model, the Replicator 2, has been likened to the original Macintosh, due to its incredibly intuitive UI, sleek design, the likelihood that it’s just slightly ahead of its time. 

“We’re on a mission to bring MakerBots to the desktops of everyone, and as a part of that journey we have to refine the technology,” he told VentureBeat last month. But at $2,199, it still feels mighty premium, just like the Macintosh did. And just like the Mac’s mouse and graphical user interface, it’s going to take some time to perfect the state of the art. Currently, 3D printing is mainly about toys and trinkets. Users can make an assortment of (usually) plastic objects, things like yo-yos, LED flashlights, or an awesome sifter that keeps just the Lucky Charm marshmallows. Genius. The website Thingiverse already offers the schematics of more than 15,000 objects for free download, none of which are too practical. In the end, it feels like a very expensive toymaker. “Before we make it cheap, we have to make it excellent,” Pettis says. And it is indeed excellent. Taking a page from Apple’s playbook, Pettis’ new retail space in Manhattan’s NoHo district serves as an HQ of sorts to show off his object making revolution, and remind people that this isn’t just “science fiction.”

Today’s iPhone is many magnitudes more powerful and ridiculously useful compared to the original Mac from 1984. Similarly, MakerBots of the future may be cheaper, faster and many times more versatile. What you’re now unlikely to find outside the workshops of your geekiest friends might someday be in every household, next to the laundry machine. Then again, things change quickly and technologies develop unpredictably.

3d printed jewellryTake, for example, the 3D printing marketplace Shapeways, which just set up its first industrial printer in New York. For all the press that MakerBot has received of late, this hackerspace-inspired community of 3D printing enthusiasts might have more potential to accelerate the movement’s shift from fringe tech to mainstream adoption by changing the dynamic of what it means to be a consumer and a producer. Shapeways allows you to upload your specs to their site, and they’ll print it for you and ship it anywhere in the world.

“What we also offer is a Shapeway shop system,” explained Carine Carmy in an interview with Digital Trends. “Independent designers can make their 3D models available for sale. We’ll print them and ship them to the customer and often those products are really customizable so you can work with a designer to get exactly what you’re looking for.”

“Home decor and the DIY markets are really big right now. People are making objects for their home, like door handles, coffee mugs, plates, chairs and lamps. Jewelry is also really popular because of all the different materials you can print in. People are making highly custom, really beautiful designs that would otherwise be very difficult to get cast in any other way. The benefit is that you don’t have to make a mold and you don’t have to find someone  to produce. You can make it yourself.”

These things cost roughly the same as what you’d pay in the store, although there are always outliers depending on materials. For instance, ceramic is a bit more expensive, so a mug can cost $30. But a sterling silver bracelet could be even cheaper than some stores at $70. Add on the benefit of getting something totally personal and unique, and it seems like not so bad of a deal.

“Historically you had to walk into a store or go online, and pick something off the shelf, and have it be almost what you’re looking for,” says Carmy. “Now you can put your personal stamp on products in a really physical way. You’re actually creating this product, and everything is made on demand, and these things were never possible before. It’s just really incredible, the breadth of products and creativity.”

The MakerBot and Shapeways represent nascent tinkering and mindless consumerism — albeit nascent tinkering and mindless consumerism with enormous potential. But 3D printing’s paradigm shift from potential to prevalent may well come from applications that are currently lower profile but way higher concept. 

Take Emma for instance, the two-year old girl suffering from a rare disease called arthrogryposis. It’s a wicked disease that results in joint contraction and muscle weakness and fibrosis. Thanks to her custom outfitted 3D printed exoskeleton however, Emma has regained the use of her arms. And as she grows, doctors will be able to adjust her exoskeleton as needed, on demand. Elsewhere, a new company called Bespoke Innovations is offering fully customized prosthetics, which makes sense “because every body is different.”   

This is life-changing medical advancement, made possible by 3D printing. The only thing stopping Emma from printing her exoskeleton at home, along with a plethora of other personal and household necessities — like wardrobe, basic furniture or even dinner — are the kinds of materials we can currently manipulate cheaply at home. But awesome advancements in the complexity of what’s being printed today mean this could be a vivid reality in as little as 5 to 10 years. Recently, the world’s first acoustic guitar was printed. Disney recently announced it was playing around with printed optics. And that brings us back to Cronin, who is looking at 3D printing at a molecular level.

Cronin is experimenting with a a totally new approach to chemistry he developed called “combination reactionware.” As he sees it, chemistry is a field still stuck in the past. “If I showed you mechanical engineering, or computing science, or a medical lab 300 years ago, and the equivalent lab today,” he explains, “you wouldn’t be able to see any commonality. But if I showed you a chemistry lab, you’d still notice the standard kind of glassware.”

In a way, Big Pharma is just using really expensive robotics to do really cheap operations, Cronin argues. He wants to change all of that, replacing the test tube with the 3D printer, thereby flipping the operation on its head.

makerbot replicator 2 3d printer“You can go to a computer and actually code into the program the chemical rules. You can teach the computer how to do chemistry as a function of architecture. We are designing reactionware and doing complex chemistry, building basic drug-like molecules into the system and combining the principles of robotics and 3D printing to develop new platforms for chemistry.”

This has potential to put the power of chemistry in the hands of individuals. Cronin’s dream is to create an affordable 3D printer chemistry set, so that hackers can start tinkering with the kinds of experiments once reserved only for the big boys — “hackable chemistry,” he calls it. Right now, his team is researching the possibility of a DIY kit that would cost only $150.

His vision is compelling to say the least. “Imagine your printer like a refrigerator that is full of all the ingredients you might require to make any dish in Jamie Oliver’s new book,” Cronin told the Guardian recently. “Jamie has made all those recipes in his own kitchen and validated them. If you apply that idea to making drugs, you have all your ingredients and you follow a recipe that a drug company gives you. They will have validated that recipe in their lab. And when you have downloaded it and enabled the printer to read the software it will work. The value is in the recipe, not in the manufacture. It is an app, essentially.”

The regulatory implications of this are a little staggering, and no one should expect to be printing drugs in their homes anytime soon. For Cronin, though, such hurdles are dwarfed by the possibilities. “It’s not limited by the available technology. We could do [many of these things] tomorrow. It’s really a product of consumer demand and the innovators to generate that demand.” For those who have trouble envisioning the future, not to worry. Einstein surely couldn’t see where the discovery of relativity would eventually take us, he explains. Relativity allows us to accurately compensate for changes in time, based on how fast something is traveling. Without this knowledge, the navigational functions of GPS — a $100 billion a year industry — would fail in about 2 minutes (since satellites orbit the planet at a speed of about 8,700 miles per hour).

The MakerBot, Shapeways, Emma’s exoskeleton, and Cronin’s vision are a pretty disparate collection of futures for 3D printing, but they share a common thread: empowerment. It’s about making people more independent,” Cronin says, and it’s why he, Pettis, Carmy, and the rest of the 3D printing’s advocates have no doubt that it will not die in the “trough of disillusionment.” 

If only we could say the same for “Second Life.”

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: