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

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.


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?

Nerd haha. ^_^
But I agree it would be pretty cool but not so keen on painting it. I would say only a trek fan plus talented artist can pull that off mate.

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.

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...

could make something relatively ugly from wire and a low power welder... perhaps in a box filled with shield gas...

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.

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!

Darman beat me to it. You can print a fully functional Maserati, just at 1/100 scale. It will function by you pushing it along the carpet. Then you just have to train a mouse to drive it.:)

14 miles outside the city limits.

THEY need to move back to new joisy where dey iz frum....

He must have been a frustrated schoolyard bully that was never quite up to real bully levels.
He goes through life mad at everybody, and it's always somebody else's fault when things go wrong in his life.

Haha, if only. At least we can print our own Hot Wheels now.

I just think of the dot matrix printer/computer combo (no monitor) that we used back in the 70's at school vs. the state of technology today, and imagine what these devices will be 30-40 yrs. from now(Realistically, 5-10 yrs. from now). I own a Printrbot (kit) and it works very well. I believe stereolithographic printers will eventually become commonplace as the price of media drops and if not, some other, superior technology will take it's place. Looking at commercial 3D printing operations, they already can print with metals and other plastics than PLA or ABS. Applications in biology and medicine are already both commonplace and astounding. The future for this tech is definitely bright!

Very true, The very NEAR future. It was only 80 some years between the Wright Brother's flight and the first man to orbit the earth. The things I've mentioned will be on us sooner than we can imagine. Yes, the average person isn't going to go out and buy a $2,000 machine that can make plastic toys, but in 1905, the average person didn't buy a car either... Not until H. Ford made them affordable... And even then, the only advantage over the horse was, you only had to feed a car when it was moving.

Imagine what materials you'd like to see a printer handle. Others are imagining the same thing. Today, it'll be nylon. Tomorrow it'll be lexan, 5 years from now, it'll be white metal.

Try this thought experiment with me: Imagine you're a business man and you make, i don't know... Widgets. You want different sizes and colors to be available, and you also want to make them as cheaply as possible, so you can make a good profit.

You with me? OK, now in order for you to make your widgets, you'll need to spend a little of your future profit to build dies to make them. You'll also have to buy materials to make them. And then, you'll have to make enough of them to 1) keep costs down and 2) insure you have enough on hand to sell. That means, you'll need a warehouse to store your widgets, and boxes, so they'll sit nicely on the shelves. Finally, you hope that I'll come along and want one of YOUR widgets. That's pretty much how things are today, right?

OK. Now you're that same businessman, and I have a question for you: Would you rather do business the way I just described, or would you rather have a digital design of your widget, advertised on the internet, and customers sending orders in to your server, paying with PayPal and then receiving a digital download of your widget, in any color and size the customer chooses. You have no warehouse, the customer uses his or her material and there's no need for packaging. Every bit of profit is yours to keep.

This is the same path that inkjet printers took in the 1980s. Today, we're buying printers at cost. Absolutely no profit in printer manufacturing. If truth be told, chances are companies would rather GIVE their printers away. Why? Because they can sell you colored water for $3,000 a gallon... Forever.

The bottom line: Give companies the opportunity to make a profit and the technology will appear... As quickly as humanly possible

I don't want to sound curse (I'm really quite personable), but I stand by my prediction. By the time today's 2nd graders are graduating, they'll be doing business in ways we can't imagine


Reply 4 years ago

I can't shut up... One of my lecturer's when I was going to college was a futurist named R. Buckminster Fuller. In one of his classes (I missed some and am still kicking myself), he said "In 20 years, man will be going around the earth at the speed of thought." I remember looking at my friend and both of us rolling our eyes. He had also taught us that semester, that we know how much the next leap in technology will be (computers doubling their speed), and we also know when the technology will appear (every 18 months). The math to formulate his data is difficult for me to dig back up, but I remember his exponential curves that defined his conclusions. The one thing we CAN'T predict, is how it will be done, he said. I took Mr. Fuller's class in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, I'm sitting in my office, with the TV on in the background. I'm listening to one of those science stations. All of a sudden, the hair on the back of my neck stands straight up. I hear the words, "Virtual Reality"... "Speed of thought", I was dumbfounded. We're already in the speed of thought generation. We can communicate vocally and visually with anyone, anywhere at the speed of thought. We're closer now than ever to sending real, useful "things" around the world that fast as well. Faster than any UPS plane could ever go.


4 years ago

You DO realize, what we have today, is the Wright Brother's version of tomorrow's technology, right? The children entering school today will be graduating to jobs that don't yet exist, using tools that haven't been invented yet.

Just as people of the 18th century couldn't conceptualize how we're able travel around the world in 86 minutes (they'd probably try to imagine how large their sails would have to be), we're incapable of imagining how 3D printers could possibly print microscopically precise objects using every material known to man.

Technology is increasing exponentially at an incredible rate and if you're in your 40s, your grandchildren will know... And wonder why Grandma and Grandpa have such a difficult time grasping the concept.

That being said. Already, you can buy nylon for consumer 3D printers and I've experimented with making electrical switches using metal inserts, set in place at the proper point in the print. I've also become reliant on my printer to be an "employee" making things while I'm doing something else. It's a great experience, checking up on it once in a while, watching my ideas come to life.

Of course technology is advancing rapidly. There is currently amazing stuff happening under the broad term of "3D Printing" today, but many of those machines are very expensive and highly specific. Here I'm just talking about what most people will actually use, the FDM printers.

These are still very very cool and have a lot of potential, but many people take a huge leap in judgement as to their current capabilities. You simply can't use two different plastics to recreate everything.

I see 3D printing working great in the prototyping field or a unique or single piece such as 3d sculpture or a person but in the field of mass production they would not work, build a prototype you like then machine a injection mold, then your not limited to 2 plastics the true benefit is you will have the prototype tweaked before you spend the money or time on an injection mold

Funny that you say so. 3D printing is also known as rapid prototyping. My teacher actually used it to design an iPad stand that he thought about selling.

injection molding is = low cost high count copies
3d printing = mid~low cost one off's
it's really that simple
if you need 500+ of something use a 3d printer to check your design is right on a few if it's good pay to have molds made and go that route.
if you really want to go all the way like i did.
you build a home built 4axis CnC table first
and use it to mill the parts to build the 3Dprinter
then not only can you make one but you can cut the molds your self
then what might take 4 hours $ 3 to print takes less then 5 secs and under a penny on an injection molding rig.
you have to keep in mind IM can not make all shapes a 3D printer can
so somethings will need tweaking to go that route and some things are just best left on a 3D printer unless you want to get a crash coarse on sonic welding plastics.
if you want your ABS prints to really shine build a Vapor tank.
a sealed glass tank with a fan inside "i mounted the Blush-less motor outside and spins a shaft inside to a small fan i made from a alu can"it only needs to keep the vapor moving so even at 100 rpm it will do fine not no sparks or anything the can set it off do it out side away from your house i use a 20gal fish tank and lay a piece of tempered glass on top to seal it don't need to be perfect..
raise your prints to about an inch off the bottom
and add about 20ml of acetone per 1cuft of space then seal it and watch and the ripples fade away to a nice gloss shine crazy how well it works.

my home shop has 4 3D printers each has over 3cuft of build volume
(heated build chambers and beds help a ton with ABS)
my 4ftx4ftx1ft 3axis CnC with 4th axis option fix to one side
and my design room with my beast PC
running quad AMD 6386 SE OC'd to 4.08ghz
128GB's or DDR3 at 1600mhz 7-7-7 1.5v
super-micro mobo with custom bios to allow some OC
yes this is one AMD system that will
hands down walk all over intel 64 real cores is hard to beat i use it for folding@home 95% of the time
my PPD avg is 5,998,871 off this one machine
it took 5 EVGA SR-X intel rigs to even come close
full water cooling
4X GTX Titans
2x intel 240gb SSD
12X 3TB HDD for storage
1X 50" LG led TV 5X Catleap 2703 led LCD's at 2560x1440
case is from mountainmods U2UFO and Water Barrel below

Injection molding is good if you want to make copies, but in rapid prototyping, you want to make many revisions. 3D printing is ideal for this. For injection molding, you have to mill the mold for every revision, then inject the mold which is more cost.

I think 3D printing is more suited to prototyping, while injection molding is better for a final product which needs to be duplicated many times.

I am sorry if this is what you were trying to say, it was kinda hard to understand.

You nailed it but I do believe 3d will have a place In everyday life but it is going to be in specialty parts and prototyping as the cost levels out like computers you will see more people owning one if they are given options to use them I remember the first microwave made a lot of hotdogs at our house and was a novelty but now they are in every home the trick for 3d printer manufacturers will be to provide a way to make them useful like the microwave as for now they are novelties not necessary. That being said yes I will own one by the end of the year . :-D

I definitely agree. I think eventually it can be used to make household repairs, and that is where the huge value will lay.

This may be out there, but we are most likely not to far away from the food replicator on Star Trek the 3d printer may transform itself into this by using different protein based paste and flavorings instead of plastic. We have protien bases readily available now but they are being used in feed rations in livestock at a wasteful ratio ( mixed in with feed the conversion is 3 to 5 lbs of feed to 1 lb of gain that turns into 1 lb of animal body weight that 50 to 60% actually is able to be consumed by humans ) if we are able to use a protein base food we will improve our health and with very little waste plus you will be able have a better shelf life and larger variety which will add up to lower food cost due to lower waste.... As I ramble on this is something I believe will move this technology into everyone's home

Isn't that kinda how McDonald's makes their "stuff" ? Or how "Soylent Green" evolved? Just kidding. Who knows? I think the applications are limitless. They are already printing human skin and are experimenting with other organs. Not a stretch to imagine food being made with one. Perhaps that really IS how McDonald's makes those flat round eggs!

I used it for prototyping R/C car parts and fixing things around the house

NICE RIG! but I am putting my money in the shop part cnc mill,plasma table, laser cutter, lathe, tig, mig, ect... I have most of these tools but am looking at a 3d printer to create and prototype and yes while there are things that can't be injected molded they are gonna be few in my designs I am looking at producing prototypes for mass production in injection molds because the number of plastics are not limited to 2, and they cost less/unit but to justify the printer when it is not in use on prototype stuff I am looking at human sculpture in plastic which the 3d printer is ideal for because that is something that is a unique item, but the cost of handheld 3d scanner is too high so looking into building a structured light rig, the 3d scanner is a tool that is a great tool for 3d printing but if you have checked as printers have come down scanners are a little pricey yet. So owning a 3d printer comes down to simply two things in my opinion 1- you have the money and want buy it, 2. You have an idea on how to pay for it and you use that idea to pay for it, will it become a household appliance? that depends on all the people using them now making it justifiable for everyone to own one - basically it's up to us to make them needed or they become a novelty --- my opinion ....

So, how do you make the mold?

You cast it around a prototype.

You use the 3d rendering you made for the printer and reverse engineer it , you have the mill cut out the shape of the 3d object in a piece of aluminum or steel , and then you fill the mold with plastic from a heated pressurerized extruder when you open it it up (molds are usually made in 2 halves ) there will be the copy of the part in seconds not minutes or hours and then put back together and do it again, you use the rendering of the part on the computer not the actual part , the time saving is the fact that you are not milling out multiple molds to get the product right you just 3d print until its right then mill .

Very interesting article. I love the part about how 3D printing is amazing when used with other things as well; very true!

On a different note, I have the same flash drive as you :D

Custom fabrication for niche items should not be overlooked. I know of at least one printed flyer for an antique spinning wheel, based on an extant but broken original piece, and an extra bobbin for the same spinning wheel that are holding up beautifully. The original parts were cabinet grade wood, cherry, I believe. Nice article, thanks very much.


4 years ago

The acronym "AKA" in the first sub-heading should probably be "ie" instead.

Both are correct in that context.

Maybe I'm missing something here but i haven't heard any "Hype" about 3d printing.
but i usually dont look towards the media for information

if someone honestly believes the obvious false rumors or exaggeration.
then they're probably the kind of  people that would believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows until they were in their teens. (i knew someone like that not a very bright person if you ask me)

I have seen a metal and even a solar powered glass 3d printer but the results are less than hoped for. especially the glass 3d printer. (quality metal printers maybe some day.)
they still have obvious problems. the glass printer is probably hopeless in any decent resolution. it just melts layers of sand using a large amount of focused sun light and was used in the desert where there is a good amount without hardly to no cloud cover.
there obviously can't be a real 3D printer that uses wood as a material other than supporting its own machinery/ parts. thats cnc machines job to use that as its product material.

not to mention the metal 3d printer 'that  i seen' cost well into the s100,000s and used a large kiln the size of about 50 refrigerators. just to "cure" the product. as it used metal in fine powder. much like the Z-corps 3d printers process of adding material rather than extruding it like most.

I come about the hype from a backwards direction. People keep asking me questions about 3D printing that don't make and I ask them where they read it. Lots and lots and lots of people are very concerned about 3D printed guns, for example. Because of media hype. Check out Kiteman's link in his comment here for typical pieces.

Actually, there is wood-based filament now. People have figured out that it changes color according to temperature, too, so there's some custom work with temperature changing during the print.

The metal-printers I've seen in videos are the same. 3d printing metal powder into its green state and then firing it in the kiln.

"Wood based filament" i didn't see that one lol
i have seen people use something edible in 3d printers, or organ tissue but wood lol.
thanks for the link that might be something to try one day.

You mentioned there are some cheaper ones out there around $200.

I have helped build 2 at a local hacker space, but have never seen one around $200

$500 - $700 are the best prices I have found.    Usually the electronics alone start around $200
Do you have a link?

Uninformed media is a huge problem. You can pretty quickly tell which journalists have no grasp of the subject at all as well as those who have a little or even a decent amount. But they all share a tendency to just give in to the hype anyway.

One common thing I see is "plastic printing today, metal printing tomorrow!" Can they please just take a moment to watch a couple videos about the different processes?

I agree with you guys - the media can sometimes grab a thing and take it somewhere we would wish it to be but still needs years of development. We are FAR away from printing a sandwich for lunch, but at least we get to participate this time around, unlike with the development of things like CD, CD-R, transistors & the like. We can play with the prototypes as the tech gets developed. This is ultimately the "machine" that I envisaged as a child 30y ago: It has stores of the elements and puts them together to make what I need.


Repeat until healthy and not brocolli
Synthesize lunch

If healthy goto PRINT


@Fungus; Hi! Thank you for sorting reality and practicality from hype and hysteria. I've tweeted this. Thanks! : ) Site

Good article!

Whereas pretty much anyone can make things in wood or metal with basic tools, plastic, until the advent of 3D Printing proved more elusive. In part, the reason for this is our expectation. Most plastic parts we see are small, intricate injection molded things that we would have no hope of carving out of a block of plastic with wood or metal working tools.

Now, as your USB Stick example shows, we can produce items of similar quality to what you would buy in a store. In many ways, I feel this democratizes an area of fabrication which has eluded the public on cost grounds.

I'm now on my 3rd 3D Printer, an Ultimaker which IMHO is fantastic compared to the previous. Our house has several little printed objects you wouldn't even notice are printed. I printed new knobs for the cooker when one broke. They look just like the old knobs, but it's too old to buy spares. The volume knob on my car radio fell off and rolled out the door & down a drain! A few hours later - I had a new one every bit as good as the original.

Despite the hype in the press, I do genuinely think this is the start of a revolution - and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg so far!

1mo: acetone ABS vapor smoothing becomes widespread, automation starts

2mo: people realize they can do cheap investment casting of PLA at local foundries

6mo: $500 Delta printers with multiple extruders

8mo: All the printers in UPS stores become obsolete

10mo: Fast, enclosed powder printers hit kickstarter

12mo: 3D software produces strong, organic forms by default

14mo: 3D printer "craigslist" sites (makexyz.com) become default phone apps

16mo: 3D investment casting in all metals reaches competitive prices

18mo: Conductive filament and simple electronics show up on thingiverse

20mo: Dual printing soluble support and insoluble part is most common

2yr: Personal laser sintering <$1000

3yr: 3D printed organs/prosthesis become cheapest option

4yr: Personal quadcoper/legged robot helper pets become too cheap not to own

5yr: 3D printed architecture is common for low structures