Reality check on the 3D printing hype-cycle

Carl Bass, president and CEO of Autodesk, has a very good post on the limits and opportunities of 3D printing. Because 3D printing is constrained by the immutable fact of cubic volume, which means that making things larger costs exponentially more, the major opportunities aren't in printing big stuff. Rather, it's in printing detailed things, complicated things, one-off things -- and in making printers that don't rely on a razor/razorblade business model and charge a fortune for new feedstock to a captive audience.

I think two important areas to watch here are printing electronics — i.e., not just objects but logic and function — and the burgeoning field of bioprinting. The latter represents some of the most exciting work employing 3-D printers. For example, Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University has pioneered work that includes the successful printing and implantation of human urethras. San Diego-based Organovo prints functional human tissue that can be used for medical research and therapeutic applications. And companies like Craig Venter’s as well as Cambrian Genomics (which I have a small personal investment in) are printing DNA — yes, DNA! — one base pair at a time.

One thing I think he misses is "slow printing" -- 3D printers that use material from the environment (maybe sand blown over a collector for a solar-powered printer on a beach) to print out, over the course of years or decades, very large numbers of small components, or even very large components.

An Insider’s View of the Myths and Truths of the 3-D Printing ‘Phenomenon’ [Carl Bass/Wired]


  1. Interesting to speculate on what the differences might be between the 2d and 3d markets that would preclude us falling in 3d-world into the trap we seem squarely to be in in 2d land, of paying a king’s ransom for ink.

    1. Given the advances in 2-d printing I am happy to continue to pay a premium if they keep pushing the technology. It is going to be the printer or the “ink” that pays for it. 

      One difference is the utility of three dimensional printing is bound to be much greater than two d. Most of the advances in flat printing have been in making the result last longer which is still a desire of a very small market. True 3-d printing would be so useful that the price would be pushed lower because of the potentially  unlimited market.

  2. This article suggests that size is a limitation because you can only make a printer so big, but let’s think outside the box for a moment (literally). What if the print head could climb around on the surface of what it is printing? Given this is technically possible, then there are no real size constraints on 3D printing at all. We just haven’t created a boxless 3D printer yet.

    1.  The size of the printer isn’t really a problem. A printer can be made arbitrarily large. The problem is the length of time it requires to print large objects at high resolution.

      1. A printer can be made arbitrarily large.

        I beg to differ.  Vigorously.   Materials’ properties aren’t just linear/single-variable things.

        Let’s say that the rods supporting the print head, when half a meter long, can be 1cm in diameter to be sufficiently rigid to provide accurate positionning.  If these same rods are two meters long, that 1cm diameter makes them wobbly, so they need to be a larger diameter. 

        And so does the frame holding these.  And the motors need to be bigger and stronger.  So the brackets holding these need to be bigger and stronger.  Rinse and repeat.

        1.  I don’t understand your argument. Why can’t the diameter of the rods, the strength of the frame, the size of the brackets holding things and the power of the motors be increased as well?

        2. I think you’re missing the original point?

          A 3d printer can print its own stand. As just one example, to print a 100 story skyscraper you don’t need a 101 story tall printer. You just need a printer that can print 1 story and can mount itself to that story to build the next one on top if it.

          Going in the smaller direction you could also probably make a printer that prints just walls and builds the walls up by mounting itself to the lower part of the wall it has just built. In other words, you could probably make a printer (maybe better called a robot) that is only 5×5 feet max that can build tall skyscrapers.

          1. You can’t build a skyscraper to any arbitrary height.  These IS a limit to how much weight that first floor can support. 

            Like wise for when building larger version of machines.  Or dinosaurs, or loaves of bread. 

          2. I’m not sure what your point is. You can still print buildings. Maybe they can’t be infinitely tall. So what. That in no way invalidates my point

          3. Well, greggman, that robot doesn’t exist yet, as far as I can tell from the Contour Crafting website and all the articles I d/l’ed…

            And, concrete houses…  Yay! 

            My disagreement was with the “arbitrarily large”.  Not with the “printers can make things”. 

            I do think we’ve flogged this horse dead.

    2.  The real challenge of creating a 3d printer not limited by the size of the printer is that of maintaining precision when moving the printing mechanism. It is trivially easy to put the printing arm on a moving cart, but being able to repeatedly move to the exact same position over and over again is a big challenge. Perhaps some sort of laser grid that can be aligned with might help.

  3. Wow, the president of Autodesk is making predictions that 3D printing will be most useful if everyone has their own CAD software?

  4. Oy, my mind just expanded. What he is talking about is something like printing a tablet computer one layer at a time with the appropriate materials. First the protective backside, then the battery, the electronics, the display, the touch interface, the glass. Boom, out of the printer and turn it on. It is ready for use. One machine, one process, high resolution three dimensional printing. Print you up a replacement kidney? Just give me your finger tip so I can get a DNA sample. Very good, It will be ready in 20 minutes. Would you like us to prepare it for hand carry, sir, or FEDEX to the hospital of your choice? And everything in between.

  5. Loved this article, for many reasons. Especially the parts where he drives home the point that not all things currently called “3D printing” are the same.
    Basically I would love for all of us to get back to talking about real innovations rather than pavlovianly drooling over any and all manufacturing processes where stuff gets squirted out of a nozzle, regardless if that’s the least efficient way to achieve the end result.

  6. Hype check! It’s not exponentially more. It’s cubically more. Those are really significantly different orders of growth.

      1. I’m still hoping they build a giant 3D sandstone-printer to finish off La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Mostly because I can’t imagine it would take any longer to do it that way than it is going to take building it conventionally.

        But also because it would be absolutely fucking awesome watching it work, layer upon layer, from a webcam attached to the print head or frame, hundreds of metres above the milling tourists.

      2. Sometimes it’s only N**2 instead of N**3, if the object you’re printing is thin-walled instead of filled, or somewhere in between the two (e.g. thin-walled, but the walls are sub-linearly thicker on larger prints.)

  7. Printing 3D logic circuits makes little sense with respect to the fact it’s not being done at home on 2D printers yet. Wouldn’t it be more effective to start there? 
    That being said, I’m immersed into 3D printing (teaching 3D design to beginners, building and fixing 3D printers) at TekVenture in Fort Wayne, IN.
    The tech should be allowed to walk first before it’s handed the keys the family car. 

  8. How many custom plastic widgets does the average person need?  How many custom electronic circuits?  When the cost of production drops below the value of having bespoke electro-plastic gewgaws instead of mass-manufactured gewgaws, the era of mass-customization can begin.  And even then, I wonder how large a market there will be.

    1. I currently need 3 in my kitchen alone.  2 plastic thingies to support a glass shelf in my fridge (currently held up with a strip of wood and some tape) and a little peg to attach the bottom of my rubbish bin to the door of the cupboard wherein it is mounted, so it swings out when I open the cupboard.

      I could order these parts if I could find the part numbers, and where to buy them, and pay postage and packaging costs that probably far exceed their value.

      When (not if) cheap 3D printers are commonplace, it will be more convenient and less wasteful to grab a CAD file from a website (or make one) and either print them myself or have them printed at the local DIY/hardware store.

      Plus, the market will grow to accommodate new purposes and uses we haven’t thought of yet, as it did with the market for home computers and portable telephones.

  9. OK I’ll bite, will the reality check be an extra module or a separate unit?
    The ne plus ultra is, of course, the printing of reality itself.

    If IBM can already animate carbon monoxide, then I say this technology properly matures within the next 75 years.
    Of all the crazy Star Trek stuff I thought I had coming down the pipeline, the mobile phone was kind of a gimmee but the fucking Replicator / Transporter?!!

  10. “Because 3D printing is constrained by the immutable fact of cubic volume, which means that making things larger costs exponentially [??] more, the major opportunities aren’t in printing big stuff.”

    Costs would quickly rise with printsize only if the print resolution must be kept the same. But for many larger prints lower resolutions might suffice. Think of a printer that uses some inexpensive concrete like mix to print large and grainy objects used as parts for a building.

        O(N³ ) is not exponential, it’s only polynomial. But it does mean the volume gets 8 times as great every time you double the sides of the cube, which means it scales badly. But it’s still not exponential. I think I’m too fond of computer science and algorithms to let it pass. :-)

    But yes, the real value is to be able to print high-quality, high-resolution one-offs – not only prototyping, but “I only need this one” kind of situation which would be extremely expensive to fabricate before the 3D printer.

  12. Doesn’t making larger things cost “exponentially” more anyway? I mean, a skyscraper costs a lot more than a Lego house.

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