Is 3D printing the new virtual reality?

At Technology Review last week, Christopher Mims made an interesting argument against getting too excited about 3D printing technology. His basic point: This stuff is neat, but it is still a long, long way from revolutionizing the world.

3-D printing, like VR before it, is one of those technologies that suggest a trend of long and steep adoption driven by rapid advances on the systems we have now. … But the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a "mature" technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.

Let's start with the mechanism. Most 3-D printers lay down thin layers of extruded plastic. That's great for creating cheap plastic toys with a limited spatial resolution. But printing your Mii or customizing an iPhone case isn't the same thing as firing ceramics in a kiln or smelting metal or mixing lime with sand at high temperatures to produce glass—unless you'd like everything that's currently made from those substances to be replaced with plastic, and there are countless environmental, health, and durability reasons you don't.

There's some good points in here. And Mims doesn't discount the idea of 3D printing someday becoming a tool that can allow anyone to produce any object in their living room. It's just, he argues, not something that's likely to happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Tim Maly has posted a response to Mims' piece, also on Technology Review. His argument: Think about 2D printing. In the span of 100 years, it went from something extremely physical—involving metal foundries and expensive manufacturing processes—to something that anyone can do in their living room.

Maly also points out that desktop manufacturing involves more than just 3D printing. Other tools like laser cutters and CNC mills allow people to work with materials other than plastic. I think that's a fair point. But Maly's assertion that some materials will just have to fall by the wayside if they can't be easily used for rapid reproduction seems to ignore some of the key implications Mims is concerned about — What's best for rapid reproduction isn't necessarily what's best for the environment or human health. I'm not sure exactly where I stand in this debate. I think both Mims and Maly are making some pretty good points and predicting the future is hard in any case. But I think that point of Mims' is an important one.

Whenever we have a new technology we're pinning some big hopes on, it probably makes sense to spend a good deal of time considering what the negative consequences of that technology could be, and what we can do to mitigate them. Because everything has the potential for negative consequences.