By Freddie Moore

Many have claimed to see the future of 3D printing. Some say that it will catalyze the next Industrial Revolution, that it will transform manufacturing, that it will become a ubiquitous household appliance. In this narrative, families will soon be printing goods instantly instead of squandering their time and money at a local store. We will all be printing plates, mufflers, children’s toys and whatever else we need from files that we download on our computers and manufacture on our personal 3D printers.

This is also what I assumed before visiting 3D NYC Lab, a digital fabrication studio based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I met with founders Austin Robey and Blair Gardner to pick their brains about the future of 3D printing, and I left relieved of my visions of real-life Star Trek replicators. Now I’m at a crossroads: 3D printing could be a manufacturing revolution waiting to happen in every kitchen, office and garage; or it could be as sensationalized as the microwave once was.

In fact, NASA has already invested a great deal of money into researching how to print food in space. For now, this remains a hopeful dream, like many of the other predictions about 3D printing. (“We’re not there yet” is a phrase Austin and Blair repeated throughout our discussion.) Because of such hype, it’s difficult to stay grounded in the practical realities of 3D printing and how these might affect our lives. So let’s cut the bullshit. Let’s see where 3D printing actually stands today and where it’s likely to go tomorrow.

 Reality: 3D printing technology has been around for over 20 years.

During my visit to 3D NYC Lab, Blair joked: “If I’m at a party on the weekend and someone asks what we do, I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, we work with laser cutters.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, cool,’ but I can tell that they have no idea what I’m talking about.”

The confusion may stem in part from the science fiction lore of Star Trek replicators and The Jetson’s Food-a-Rac-Cycle, but 3D printing is not quite as mysterious and magical as its fictionalized counterparts (after all, it is real).

Stereolithography, the process of printing tangible objects from digital data, was invented in 1984 by Charles Hull, president of 3D Systems. It was originally used to create 3D models to test an engineering design before investing in large-scale manufacturing, and that remains one of the greatest advantages and applications of 3D printing today.

Hull was the first to devise a successful method of 3D-layer printing, and in 1992, 3D Systems created the first stereolithographic apparatus — otherwise known as the first 3D printer. The machine’s process involved a UV laser projected over a photosensitive pool of liquid to create, layer by layer, a three-dimensional object. (Today, the processes vary according to printer; MakerBot, which targets the average consumer, runs on the fused deposition modeling, melting and layering spools of plastic.) Although the machine was not perfected in 1992, it was clear then that stereolithography was possible.

A MakerBot Replicator in action (Credit: Photo by Flickr user Osamu Iwasaki, used with Creative Commons license)

 Science Fiction: A 3D printer in every home!

Three-dimensional printing relies on various computer-aided design (CAD) software — a standard application in architecture, industrial design and, now, 3D printing, explains Austin, a former architecture student — to design files that printers use as blueprints to build from. So if the average consumer wanted to design something to print in 3D, he or she would have to be fluent in CAD. MakerBot has tried to overcome this hurdle with Thingiverse, an online directory of open source files of printable objects. However, many of the files tend to be flawed, with pieces that don’t quite fit as expected, and often still need to be edited in CAD. Nick Allen, founder of Mak3D, the first 3D coworking space in London explains, "Even the major 3D printing libraries are full of files with errors and/or have been designed with little respect to the capabilities and cost of 3D printers."

But Austin is optimistic about future generations’ CAD fluency: “I think the best thing is, with this kind of CAD software, kids are learning it younger and younger, and becoming more fluent in these different programs and software. If these machines become more accessible and more user-friendly, then pretty much anyone can be an inventor.” Realistically, CAD may become a bit like HTML or Adobe Creative Suite skills today: Many people are familiar with it, but only a certain number are experts. Still, Blair disagreed that 3D printers would be a common household item in the future:

“You know, I love the myth that everyone is going to have a printer in their house and that everyone is going to use it to print off parts. That’s probably never going to happen because if you need a new sink stopper or something breaks in your dryer and you need a new part for that, it’s not really cost effective to have a whole machine in your house to print it out. Maybe there will be something like Kinkos, a neighborhood store you can go to, but not the idea that, in the near term, everyone’s just going to have a printer and say, ‘Oh well, we need another fork for dinner. Let’s print it out.”

There is also the question of 3D printer exhaust. New 3D printer owners have noted an unexpected, strong smell of burning plastic produced by the machines. Recent research also found that using a 3D printer indoors produces effects similar to smoking cigarettes. These printers may be small, but they are still made for industrial environments.

“Another point to think about with 3D printing is that there’s a lot of intellectual property involved,”  Blair noted. 3D Systems and Stratasys, a 3D printer manufacturer, currently own patents to the most advanced printing systems, which involve high-powered lasers that can melt powdered metal into designed objects. These patents extend for roughly another decade, reducing the availability of these technologies to the general public.

A 3D-printed pig and its honeycomb innards (Credit: Photo by author)

 Science Fiction: 3D printers will recycle everything.

I was wide-eyed after reading an article on Gizmodo about the possibility of recycling milk jugs and using them for 3D printing material. It sounded simple enough: People could use a machine called a Filabot to grind up milk jugs to produce a substitute for the expensive plastic filament that 3D printers typically work with. People would not only save money, they’d also save the environment. It seemed like another great aspect of the 3D printer revolution.

But apparently people don’t have this quite down yet. Although Washington Open Object Fabricators, a collection of 3D printing enthusiasts, was able to successfully print the first boat made out of milk jugs (an amazing large-print accomplishment), the material was reportedly extremely difficult to work with, as the group found that the plastic warped and shrunk as it cooled after printing.

Blair and Austin also had their doubts about this dream of sustainability:

Blair: These materials are specifically engineered for 3D printing. Temperature calibrations and material safety — that’s some of the hardest parts to actually lock down.
Austin: People always have altruistic green fantasies about what can happen, but I don’t know.
Blair: [The MakerBot] is specifically geared to work with one type or maybe two types of plastic — ABS or PLA filaments — which have specific properties that lend themselves to 3D printing, but if you try to take a milk jug and recycle it into 3D printing material, that’s not going to work very well.

True sustainability would also have to account for the exhaust emitted by printers, which, being unsafe for homes, wouldn’t likely be very good for the environment. And that’s only considering 3D printers that print in plastic; besides being prohibitively expensive for average consumers, printers that work with metal are also huge electricity suckers.

“We can take this all the way out to super futurism,” said Blair, “and everyone has [a 3D printer] in their house because they’re generating unlimited amounts of energy from the sun and you push a button and it takes any kind of random matter block and refigures it to the shape that you want, but we’re not there yet.”

Pieces of a 3D-printed gun (Credit: Photo by Flickr user Alexpb, used with Creative Commons License)

 Science Fiction: 3D-printed guns are a menace to society.

The media has been sensationalizing 3D-printed guns since the arrival of The Liberator, the first known 3D-printed gun. Politicians, mothers and everyday people who aren’t excited about the idea of being shot at are all worried that this will be a game-changer in gun control, allowing 3D printer users to create firearms and circumvent routine weapons regulations.

When I asked Austin and Blair about guns, their immediate response was, “We don’t print guns.” Austin explained how they were previously approached by The Atlantic to print a gun for an article. “We weren’t even interested in doing it,” he said, but went on to explain how 3D printing hasn’t created the first opportunity for people to manufacture their own weapons. “If you go to Home Depot, you could make something that would fire a bullet that’s more accurate and that would only cost $20.”

Blair concurred:

“3D printing, at least now and in the immediate future, is not going to change the way that people buy and obtain firearms. If you try to contact someone and have them make it for you, they either wouldn’t do it or it would be a lot more expensive than actually buying an actual gun off the shelf.”

Even though some people may brag about being able to construct a 3D-printed gun, these weapons are typically unreliable. As mentioned, most consumer-grade printers work with plastic, which easily melts in the heat created by firing a bullet, and higher-end materials that can stand the wear come at exorbitant prices. The truth is that there are easier ways to buy better guns or even to make them using older, more reliable methods.

Reality: 3D printers make manufacturing more accessible.

The game-changer with 3D printing is the growing democratization of manufacturing — and this is not something you necessarily have to look into the future for. It’s happening right now with companies like 3D NYC Lab, which works with clients of all sizes to create products on a smaller scale than larger conventional manufacturers.

In this way, 3D printing is more in line with with Kickstarter and Etsy, where people are delving into product development in ways that previously required storefronts, industrial chops and sizeable investments. Blair explained that, when 3D printing combines forces with Etsy, “It doesn’t have to just be someone knitting a custom oven mitt. You can actually have real interesting, custom, functional products with this kind of technology.”

Over the next several years, you can expect 3D printing to challenge the “one size fits all” template. This sort of personalized manufacturing is already making for breakthroughs in medicine, improving the function of prosthetics while making them more affordable (not to mention the strides we’ve already seen in viral videos).

Sometimes it’s difficult to stay present with technology that’s seemingly so futuristic. The most amazing aspect of 3D printing isn’t that tomorrow we’ll be printing our dinners in outer space (we won’t be), but that it’s given us license to dream so wildly. 3D printers are unlikely to become a household appliance in the near future or ever (after all, how many people today own regular printers?), but they are sure to continue inspiring creativity and innovation. 3D printers are, as Steve Jobs might say, a bicycle for the mind.