Hyped expectations and what 3D printing really can do

Yesterday I read a post on Fabbaloo called 3D Printing Reality Checklist and I wanted to create my own list of 3D printing limitations. A common theme in the media is to compare 3D printing with Star Trek’s replicator. But that analogy is nowhere near the truth. It is worrisome because it creates unrealistic expectations about 3D printing and with that comes disappoint. It completely fits the Hype Cycle phases of Gartner about which I wrote a few days ago.

So to set the record straight here are my list of limitations of the current technologies:

  • Mono material — all technologies are mono-material. They only output plastic or metal parts. Objet sells a multi-material printer but in essence it is still just a different polymer instead of a significant other material.
  • Single color — all technologies print single color materials in one run. ZCorp is the only exception. They use ink to color their parts during the printing process.
  • Limited set of materials — the choice of materials is limited and does not contain a lot of common used materials like wood, aluminium or clear glass. Plastic, polymers and metal are the dominant material categories.
  • Slow — the printing process is slow. It is not just pushing a button, waiting a few minutes and get your part. Printing processes are measured in hours not minutes.
  • Immature technology — 3D printing is still immature in many aspects. The lack of closed loop control and similar reasons make 3D printers unreliable. Operating 3D printers and handling of the resulting parts is also more an art than science. Again it is not just pushing a button and the part comes out.
  • Expensive — ownership of 3D printers is still very expensive. Machine, material and labor are still significant and magnitudes more expensive than mass-produced parts.

Each printing technology (SLS, FDM, etc.) has its own set of limitations but each suffer from the list above. As a technology optimist I am sure technology will improve over time.