What 3D printers can do... and what they can't

3D printers have seen insane amounts of attention in the past year with lots of stories coming out about how amazing they are. How they can make replacement parts for anything that breaks. How they’ll revolutionize manufacturing. How everyone will have one and they’ll do everything that you need ever.

Long story short, 3D printers are pretty amazing, but they aren’t quite the miracle on a stick that the hype is pushing them to be. So let’s sift through and see what there really is to get excited about right now.

Consumer 3D printers AKA what most people will be using
The 3D printing that’s available to consumers right now is fused deposition modeling or FDM. These printers build up a model layer by layer by extruding ABS or PLA into the build area. It’s basically a much fancier version of a glue gun. A tiny glue gun controlled by a computer, that is.

These 3D printers typically run $1k - $2k, but smaller ones can be had for as little as $200. The MakerBot Replicator 2 is the most popular printer of this kind, but there are dozens of others to choose from as well.

With some fiddling and work you can pretty much print any shape that fits inside the build volume. So if the printer can fit it, you can make it. That’s simplifying it a bit (OK, a lot), but that’s the idea, and it’s a very cool idea.

After some practice you can learn how to design new things like jewelry, ornaments, or toys. Since everything is printed out you can customize any piece that you’d like. Take a couple hours to learn 123D Design and you’ll start to have new things to print out.

That’s the power of 3D printing right there. You can quickly go from an idea to a design and then to reality. Your skills in making things by hand don’t matter here. This is why it’s so amazingly helpful to use a 3D printer for prototyping your ideas.

I recently worked on a flash drive case and the first model took about 2 minutes to design. After that it was about 15 minutes to print out on a Replicator 2. Then I tested it and adjusted the design for another print. I repeated the process a few times and within 2 hours I had a file that I was happy with. This is even better considering that I only spent about 20 minutes of those 2 hours actively working. The rest was spent on other non-related work.

All about the materials
So that’s the power of 3D printing. With services like 3D Creation Systems you can upload your file and get it printed on much fancier machines with better resolution. There’s no immediate gratification, but you still get a high-quality print quickly and access to more materials.

Even with this expanded selection of printing materials, it’s still a very limited selection. If we were just to look at all the plastics out there we’d be here for days. There are thousands of them and that’s just plastics. There’s also wood and metal and more beyond that. Each different material in this insanely huge selection has a different quality to it.

I’ve seen countless people print out items in ABS or PLA and complain about how their printer must not be working since the printed piece doesn’t work like the original. But of course we can’t recreate every item out there with a couple kinds of plastic.

It's about using 3D printing with other tools
The key forward in using 3D printing is to use it as an amazing new tool of forming great pieces to work alongside all the other great items and materials out there. Why bother making a weak spring out of plastic when you can drop in a metal spring?

So 3D printing isn’t everything, but it can be used alongside most everything. It can get us where we want to go so much faster than before it’s ridiculous. But it’s still not the miracle on a stick, not the only tool we’ll ever need from here on out.

When the hype dies down we won’t be looking on at amazement at something being 3D printed, we’ll be looking at lots of awesome new things that were made faster with the help of 3D printing. And that is going to be incredible.

Picture of What 3D printers can do... and what they can't
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sparhawk72 years ago
so... what about induction? you could print in steel and stuff if you had a little graphite thing inside the extruder and a small induction heater... i mean it doesn't have to be too hot. a 9v will melt steel wool, doing it with unduction and a wire like 8 times the size? can't be too hard...
skaar sparhawk72 years ago
could make something relatively ugly from wire and a low power welder... perhaps in a box filled with shield gas...
rla torre12 years ago
Question from a closet geek. I am a huge Star Trek fan, and since I was a kid, my obsession has been with the ships from all of the shows and movies. Will these printers be able to duplicate the designs of the Enterprise? The collectables market is crazy and I'm more interested in display models. Anyone?
fungus amungus (author)  rla torre12 years ago
Sort of.

First of all, there are many models out there for Star Trek ships. Start here to see what I mean.

So yes, if you had a 3D printer you could make your own since online 3D printers typically don't print copyrighted items. There are a couple problems, though. First of all, the resolution of these printers isn't so great for printing it small. There will be little ridges that could be distracting. It helps to make them bigger so this is less of a problem.

Another problem is that you'd probably need to do a lot of painting to make it look like a ship instead of a large plastic toy.
Thank you.
This means I can't print a fully functional Maserati to race up and down the streets?

Oh well, I still want one to play with until I can print the car.
Would an Aston Martin suit you?
bfk kelseymh2 years ago
Here's a video of how that Aston Martin is being made.  Pretty intense.
Obviously you have never met my neighbors...

A beat up old ford still makes their stuff look bad and they think I'm "puttin' on airs".

Something nice would get stoned to death 'accidentally' over night.
Boss, you need to move to the country it sounds like to me!
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