I’ve heard that 3d printing is currently in “1981”. That 3d printers will get huge, and change the world. I don’t know if this is true — it’s not that 3d printers are in 1981. It’s that Microcontrollers are.
You see, the sudden interest in 3d printing has little to do with the device known as the 3d printer. No — the real interest lies in the concepts of robotics and design. People buy/build 3d printers to get into design of new, potentially intelligent, knick-knacks. Why a 3d printer, and not a CNC mill? Because they don’t know what a mill is, and because a mill doesn’t promise to make a “fully complete widget” — just parts of an assembly.
But the first thing they discover is that 3d printers aren’t very good. They’ve gotten better. A mild geek with a couple of K can now use one. A kid with determination and smarts *might* be able to use one. Say 10-30% of “geeky” kids can. Unlike a computer, where 95%+ of kids, “geeky” or not can use it. The “geeky” ones can just do a little more with it. So, they get stuck there. It’s not the 3d printer they wanted — it was a tool along the way. It’s just that the tool sucked, so they devoted the time to make it better. They want a 3d printer that, “Just works.” I’ll go further — they want the “Apple II” of 3d printers.
But, will it go beyond geeks and entrepreneurs? My belief is no — it won’t go mainstream. The technology simply will never get there. There’s only 1 technology I think has a chance — Laser sintering. With lasers that don’t exist yet. $1.00, 1,000 Watt, 0.1mm beam thickness, variable frequency, solid state laser.
But robotics, in general — that’s in 1981. People likely will never buy a 3d printer. But, the day is not far away, when people may buy things made, designed, or prototyped with a 3d printer. Right now, people are doing that — they’re buying 3d printers ( sort of meta — but right now, people with 3d printers use them to design and make 3d printers. Because the tech isn’t good enough. )
So, I like to think of 3d printers as a “robotics/design school”. Like rolling your own linux distro — when you can roll your own printer, then you’ve earned the correct level of “geek points” to be good with the technology.
But — the first robot, commonly available, and printed on, a 3d printer, is probably a ways away. The capacity of additive just isn’t there. The hints are, “It’s coming”. Some things — high end furniture is a good example — use 3d printers now, in the design stage. I’ve met the designers making very expensive shelves, tables, etc… They use a 3d printer — to prototype the look and strength of a part. But, they never manufacture the part on 3d printers — it’s just too rough. They send the drawings and prototype out to a machine shop, to have the part made from Aluminum or steel.
So, the 3d printers is a stepping stone — it’s not the destination. Unlike a computer, where people get on one specifically to get on one. We currently are in the “bathroom stall” world of computing. People use a computer because they’re bored and want to read electronic graffiti when they should be doing something else… No one is doing that with 3d printers yet.