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Progress Report: 3-D Printing

Taking Shape: Today, Tomorrow & Beyond

The future of items that are made by the use of 3-D printing might be in the home, but it’s clear that its present is in industry.

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The appeal of a desktop 3-D printer is obvious. Imagine that your kitchen sink started to leak and you had to have a part to fix it. Instead of driving to the nearest store or ordering the part online, you simply visit your sink manufacturer’s website, purchase and download digital schematics for the replacement part to a 3-D printer, press a few buttons, walk away for an hour or two, and return to find the part “printed” and ready for installation.

In 2011, that scenario inspired venture capitalists to invest $13 million in MakerBot, which was the largest 3-D-printer manufacturer at the time. Two years later, Stratasys purchased MakerBot for $400 million. 3D Systems, which was the second-largest manufacturer, went public and had a $9.5 billion market cap near the end of 2013.

“[Desktop] 3-D printers will be commonplace in a decade and will be a broad-based consumer product,” venture capitalist Brad Feld said at the time.

Experts tell us that Feld’s prediction will come true, but it might not be until after 2023. For now, home 3-D printers have a long way to go before they’re ready for prime time.

We found at least 100 desktop 3-D printers, which cost $300–$2,500, depending on their capability, size and speed, for sale in November 2016. The printers that are in this price range all use fused filament fabrication (FFF), which is a 3-D printing technology that heats filament and extrudes molten layers of it to build an object. FFF filament is made out of inexpensive plastic—typically acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), nylon or polylactic acid (PLA).

Experts tell us that these plastics aren’t rugged or food-safe and start to break down when they’re exposed to heat and water. In other words, you shouldn’t use these plastics to make components to stop your sink from leaking or to create anything that will come in contact with liquid or food.

“Consumers will find that desktop 3-D printers create a squishy bit of plastic that can’t do a great deal for them,” says industry expert Richard Horne.

Experts say desktop 3-D printers are suitable for making art, toys and housewares, such as hooks and knobs. However, because of the size of today’s desktop 3-D printer print beds, a printer object typically can be no longer than 11 inches on any side. Today’s desktop 3-D printers also typically print as fast as 100mm per second, which means that a 2-inch-long figurine will take roughly 2 hours to print, and a 6-inch-long tablet-computer stand will take almost 5 hours to print, according to All3DP, which is a magazine that covers the 3-D printing industry.

Horne also says desktop 3-D printing should be done in a well-ventilated room to limit exposure to the ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds that are emitted when plastic is heated. Researchers at Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Texas published a report in 2015 that found these emissions, and both teams say more studies are needed to determine what effect these emissions have on people.

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“There haven’t been enough studies out there about long-term effects,” Horne says.

What’s good news is that, thanks to advancements in the past 5 years in stereolithography (SL), which is a 3-D printing technology that uses lasers to make rugged objects of any size quickly out of resin, an SL printer now costs as little as $3,500. These printers don’t have the emissions concerns that FFF 3-D printers have. Fifteen experts tell us that SL resin printers will cost $2,000 or less in 3–5 years.

For now, experts say the decreased cost of SL technology is bringing 3-D printing into small businesses that want to build customized products, such as in-ear headphones. For instance, Normal Ears prints custom-fitted plastic in-ear headphones (starting at $200) in a few hours. The headphones are based on 3-D schematics that are made from a customer’s ears. To get a non-3-D-printed headphone, you’d have silicone poured into your ear to make a plastic mold and wait at least a month for those molds to be fabricated into headphones. (The price would be the same.)

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