There’s no question that 3D printing has become a main talking point in the manufacturing industry — but is all the noise worth the headache? Technology Review recently ran two articles that took opposite stands on the spectrum of 3D printing. Christopher Mims’ begins by arguing that 3D printing has no long-term place in manufacturing — and that the problem is conceptual.
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.
However, on the other side of the aisle, Tim Maly argues that — like so many technologies before it — 3D printing’s beginnings don’t matter as much as that 3D printing began. Every advanced technology that we have today only exists because of its overwrought, clumsy inception. Now that we have a point of beginning for 3D printing, the technology has the chance to evolve from there.
Chris is right that 3-D printing as it stands isn’t a replacement for the contemporary industrial supply chain. It’s clearly a transitional technology. The materials suck. The resolution is terrible. The objects are fragile. You can’t recycle the stuff.
Maybe early home 3-D printers use only plastic and can only make objects that fall within certain performance restrictions. Maybe it starts out as, like, jewelry, the latest model toys, and parts for Jay Leno’s car. But there’s no way that lasts. People are already working on the problem. They are working especially hard on the materials problem.
Is there a moderate position on 3D printing? Or is there only the partisan all-or-nothing approach?
Read the full articles at the Technology Review here:
Why 3-D Printing Will Go the Way of Virtual Reality
Why 3-D Printing Isn’t Like Virtual Reality