Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Why 3-D Printing Will Go the Way of Virtual Reality

Extruding, printing, and sintering are not the same as manufacturing.

  • January 25, 2012

Update: Tim Maly has published an excellent counterpoint to this post over at the Tech Review Guest blog.

CNC toaster / 2D thermal printer cc Windell Oskay

There is a species of magical thinking practiced by geeks whose experience is computers and electronics—realms of infinite possibility that are purposely constrained from the messiness of the physical world—that is typical of Singularitarianism, mid-90s missives about the promise of virtual reality, and now, 3-D printing.

As 3-D printers come within reach of the hobbyist—$1,100 for MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic—and The Pirate Bay declares “physibles” the next frontier of piracy, I’m seeing usually level-headed thinkers like Clive Thompson and Tim Maly declare that the end of shipping is here and we should all start boning up on Cory Doctorow’s science fiction fantasies of a world in which any object can be rapidly synthesized with a little bit of energy and raw materials.

This isn’t just premature, it’s absurd. 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. And granted, some of what’s going on at present is pretty cool—whether it’s in rapid prototyping, solid-fuel rockets, bio-assembly or just giant plastic showpieces.

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.

Advocates of 3-D printing also neglect entirely the fact that so much of what we use continues to be made out of natural substances, and for good reason. By any number of measures, wood is pound-for-pound stronger than steel, and the move toward natural products for packaging suggests that the strength and affordability of paper, bamboo and even mushrooms mean that in the future there will be more and not less of all of these.

The desire for 3-D printing to take over from traditional manufacturing needs to be recognized for what it is: an ideology. Getting all of our goods from a box in the corner of our home has attractive implications, from mass customization to “the end of consumerism.” With stakes like those, who wouldn’t want to be a true believer?

Hype is inevitably followed by some level of backlash, or at least disinterest, and it would be a shame for 3-D printing to head into a too-deep trough of the Gartner hype cycle. There will be plenty of interesting applications for 3-D printing, but I’ll bet the ones that will have the biggest impact will be within traditional factories, where rapid prototyping is already having a huge impact.

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