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There’s an inescapable aura of science fiction surrounding 3-D printing. If we can already print medical implants and jet parts, surely household replicators can’t be far behind. The rapid price drop in hobbyist printers in recent years would seem to confirm this trajectory, and last week HP added momentum to what can seem an unstoppable trend by revealing plans to sell 3-D printers by mid-2014.

But HP’s 3-D machines are unlikely to sit alongside its existing printers in offices and homes. Speaking at an event in Beijing, HP’s CEO, Meg Whitman, hinted that the 3-D printing technology being developed at the company’s research labs would aim to enable custom manufacturing shops to print out products more quickly.

Indeed, more sophisticated 3-D printing holds more promise than low-quality desktop ones. And even this technology will only go so far. While 3-D printing can be good at making some complex objects, like a customized porous titanium hip replacement, it is less useful for making straightforward, standardized things we take for granted, like the components found inside a dishwasher—at least when compared to conventional forms of mass production. It’s a unique fabrication technique and it has unique strengths and limitations (see “The Difference Between Makers and Manufacturers”).

3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing when used at an industrial scale, is a method of making objects, often by laying down layer after layer of material until a shape emerges, from the bottom up. The technique has been around for three decades, but until recently it was used mostly by designers and engineers who wanted to whip up quick prototypes without going through the hassle of milling or injection molding. Draw up a design in your computer-aided design (CAD) program, turn on the printer, leave for the night, and your model would be waiting for you in the morning.

Over the last decade, two things happened: the price of simple molten-plastic-extruding printers dropped precipitously, and industrial-scale 3-D printers started using metals, ceramics, and other materials to make not just prototypes, but also some finished products. The combination resulted in a lot of talk about a new, disruptive, and potentially radical industrial revolution. President Obama even gave 3-D printing a shout out in this year’s State of the Union.

In fact, 3-D printing will probably complement traditional manufacturing rather than replace it for some time. The technology’s big advantage is its ability to make unique, customized objects, but it does not replace the entire manufacturing process.

“Many industries are starting to understand that ‘Will this replace mass production’ is not the right question; ‘What new business models are enabled by this technology’ is the right question,” says Hod Lipson, an engineering professor at Cornell and author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing. Lipson points to the orthodontics company Invisalign as an example of a business made possible by 3-D printing. The company’s 3-D-printed clear plastic braces are customized for each person’s mouth. “They’re taking advantage of the fact that you can produce arbitrarily complex and unique shapes without much investment,” says Lipson.

High-end 3-D printing also has clear advantages when it comes to making certain types of complex industrial objects. Instead of machining 18 individual parts and then welding them into a fuel nozzle, General Electric Aviation has begun printing the nozzles whole, with small cooling pathways built in, making them lighter and more durable. “Not only are they reducing material and labor and time cost associated with traditional practices,” says Pete Basiliere, who studies 3-D printing for Gartner, “they’re able to redesign inside the injector and get a performance improvement.”

As industrial printers get faster, expand the array of materials they can use, and develop the ability to print with multiple materials at the same time (all major limitations at this point), other industries could find new components to improve.

But don’t expect printing to replace mass production. Basiliere says his hearing aid illustrates the role 3-D printing will likely have in manufacturing: the speaker can be standardized because the same type works for everyone, but its plastic casing is printed to fit his ear. “It’s a great example of how part of the unit is mass produced, part of it is highly personalized.”

As for everyone getting their own household replicator, Basiliere, Lipson, and other experts are skeptical. Even if printer prices fall drastically, making any finished product is going to require serious industrial machinery, with high-temperature lasers and powdered metals. Lipson envisions a 3-D printing ecosystem: some people might have printers at work—a car mechanic might have one for making certain parts, for instance, or a hospital for making implants—while other people might send designs to companies like Shapeways to be printed offsite. Some hobbyists might have small machines at home to tinker with, making bespoke Legos or other objects.

But Lipson also admits there could be surprises ahead. “It’s like having this conversation in the ’70s, trying to figure out how people are going to use computers,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine what business models will emerge.”

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Tagged: Computing, Materials, 3-D printing, HP, Industrial 3-D Printing, Hod Lipson

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