The hype behind 3D printing
If, as Allen believes, 3D printers have limited utility for the general public, how did 3D printing become such a buzzword? "It's been hyped up by the media," Allen said. "It's been hyped up by people who like hype. People who read tech blogs get excited by things like this."
The primary problem, Allen believes, is the term "printing." Although the 3D-printing process is technically called "additive manufacturing," that doesn't have the same kind of user-friendly ring to it as "printing," which makes users think of a household machine that, save for grappling with some confusing software, presents no real difficulty.
Unlike personal computers, for example, which offered everyday consumers brand-new functionality, 3D printers are just a new way of doing an old thing. "3D printers manufacture something," Allen said. "We've been able to manufacture things since the dawn of man." For the average consumer, there's very little a 3D printer can produce that does not have a cheaper, prettier, more convenient mass-produced counterpart.
Still, 3D printing has its uses; otherwise, Allen would be out of work. "It's absolutely fantastic for product development," he said. "It's fantastic for medical exoskeletons." For example, 3D printing can print skull pieces or prosthetic hands, he said.
In addition to medical applications, 3D printing has huge potential to serve the architectural and aerospace industries, Allen noted. "There's a huge future there," Allen said. In these industries, 3D printing makes sense, as highly specific parts made of metal and plastic do not need to be mass produced, and professional designers — rather than enthusiasts — will produce the plans, he added.
In other words, although 3D printing is far from useless, you may not get much use out of one unless you want to sink a lot of time into learning design and making small quantities of similar objects.
"If you were writing a letter and sending it off, the difficult part isn't clicking 'Print,'" Allen pointed out. "It's writing the letter in the first place. That's 99 percent of the job."