Trying to predict the future always carries the risk that you will be horribly wrong, as when Bill Gates in 2004 claimed that “spam will be a thing of the past in two years’ time.” Nonetheless I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t believe the 3D printing factory-at-home dream.
The idea, as spread by many tech blogs, is that in a few years’ time 3D printers will be so cheap that everyone will have one in their home. People will download files containing 3D drawings of products which they can then print out. Supposedly, this would mean that you pay less for your products and get them almost immediately.
However, there are a few problems. First of all, today’s affordable 3D printers have limited capabilities in terms of what they can print. What people will claim is that this problem will be eradicated in time as more advanced 3D printing technology becomes cheaper. But even if we get very advanced 3D printers there are a couple of problems that won’t go away:
Size. Home 3D printers will probably continue to be quite small (roughly the size of a large paper printer), as no one wants a 4 x 4 meters 3D printer in their home. The small printer size means that the printer will not be able handle large products very well. Sure you could assemble a large product from smaller pieces – but if you look at those products in your house that are made from smaller pieces, you will see that the individual pieces are typically larger than the pieces a small 3D printer can make.
E.g., the legs of a chair are longer than those a small printer could produce. Theoretically you could produce e.g. chairs and tables from the small pieces made by a 3D printer, but that would make the assembly process extremely time-consuming, and on top of that, a chair or a table made from a large number of smaller pieces is not going to be very stable.
So large objects are out. What about small, complex objects, then? Headphones, lamps, etc. – everyday products that are made from more than one raw material – how would 3D printers handle those? Some would point out the fact that advanced 3D printers are already able to print several types of complex items – we just need the price of those printers to go down.
But there is a problem with this scenario that is very hard to solve, even as advanced printing technology becomes cheaper: Imagine that you want to print a set of headphones and you have a printer that is able to perform this rather advanced task. Your headphones will need to be made from several different raw materials, and you probably do not have all of those materials at home (it is unlikely that someone would keep 10 or 20 different raw materials in their printer just to be able to print various kinds of products).
You might lack one or two of the needed raw materials, so you order them online. Here is the issue: If you have to order raw materials and wait several days for them to arrive, why not just order the finished product? That way you save a lot of time, and there is a bigger chance that the product will be fault-free (are you sure that three-year-old 3D printer in your home still works perfectly?).
So products made from more than one raw material are out, as are large products. What does that leave us with? Small products made from a single material (plastic). This is where 3D printers will truly shine, the proponents of home 3D printers argue.
Let’s look at the economics of this: Suppose that some years from now you’ll be able to get a decent 3D printer for $200. Since the technology moves at a fast pace, you’d probably have to replace it after four years, and you’d be able to sell it for $25. That’s an expense of $43.75 per year. Now let’s say you want to print a product once a month. You’d need raw materials for that – let’s say 1 kilo at $30 per year. Of course the printer uses electricity, so let’s add $5. Total yearly expense: $78.75.
The products you’ll be able to print are very simple ones – the kind that you can buy at supermarkets for next to nothing. We’re talking kitchen utensils, small toys, cheap-looking bracelets and the like. These are products that you can normally get for just a few dollars (precisely because they consist of a single raw material).
Let’s say that each of the products you’re looking to print would cost, on average, $5 in a store (actually, many of them would be even cheaper – small plastic products are not exactly expensive). By printing them at home instead, you’re actually paying $6.56 per product (78.75 divided by 12, since you’re printing a product once a month). So you’re paying more by making the product at home.
On top of that you have to deal with the the hassle of picking a 3D printer, the noise that the machine emits, the time spent dealing with the occasional non-working printer, and the fact that it involves quite a lot of work and time just to get a simple, insignificant product.
So products made at home aren’t necessarily cheap – but what about the obvious advantage that you get the product almost instantly? Well, that is an advantage – but is it a large enough advantage to make people buy 3D printers?
The products that we most want to have instantly are products that we feel excited about: A new smart phone, a designer chair, a cool-looking pair of shoes, an awesome car or the like. Interestingly enough, those are exactly the kinds of product that you won’t be able to print at home. The kinds of product that you can print at home are the those that hardly no one ever gets excited about: Small, cheap-looking plastic things that you’ll throw out within a year. What incentive would people have to buy a 3D printer when the only real advantage they get is to be able to print uninteresting products instantly instead of just buying them the next day at the supermarket?
What about customized products, though? 3D printers are great for that purpose – but unfortunately, customized products can already be made cheaper and faster by special printers in factories. There are several places online where you can buy coffee mugs with your photo on it, T-shirts with your own caption on them, etc. While custom T-shirts are costlier than mass-produced ones, factories will still be able to make them cheaper than you’ll be able to at home: Their printers are bigger and better than your home 3D printer, and their raw materials are cheaper since they buy them in bulk. And sure they have to add shipping costs, but even if the price of a factory-made custom item is hypothetically slightly higher than the made-at-home price due to the shipping costs, are you really going to keep a 3D printer at home just to be able to make a custom item four or so times a year?
If you’re still not convinced, think about this fact: Home 3D printing goes against something we’ve known from the dawn of the industrial age if not before: If you can produce something in very large quantities, the price of each item goes down. Home 3D printers are horribly inefficient compared to modern factory machines, and this is not going to change over time – we’re never going to see cheap home 3D printers that can manufacture products as cheaply and efficiently as advanced robots in a factory.
Also, while 3D printers will become cheaper over time, so will factory-made products. On top of that, delivering the factory-made products to your doorstep will probably become cheaper over time, too, as e-commerce gets bigger. So when people claim that home 3D printing will become popular, they’re saying that we’ll want to spend a lot of money and time just be able to print uninteresting plastic products that we could just as easily have picked up at the supermarket for a few dollars.
3D printers will continue to be a success for companies that want to prototype their products, and home 3D printers will probably be popular among hobbyists or even kids who can model something on their tablet and then print it. But I doubt that a large percentage of consumers will want to own a 3D printer and print normal consumer products with them.