3D-Printing Pro: Most People Have No Use for a 3D Printer

The hype behind 3D printing

3D-printing hype

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."

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Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi. 

  • xroe
    For now it is rather useless to the general populous in terms of cost vs usability but the same could be said about the personal computer thirty years ago or the the first automobile in a time when horses were the norm.
  • thx1138v2
    I guess this would fall into the entusiast category but I can see it being used to make replacement parts which are no longer available because the product has been discontinued. And I could see some of those parts being quite large if one can come up with a way to make it in sections and then snap them together. For that to take off, however, there needs to be good 3D scanning devices and cheap and easy 3D software for adding the snaps to the scanned pieces of the part.
  • thx1138v2
    xroe: back when I was diddling around with my first Radio Shack Model I my girl friend's mother, who was a teacher, asked me, "But what can you _DO_ with it?" And the truth was, not much, back then. But it dawned on me when I got my first color IBM XT that the answer was just about anything you can do with a canvas and paint or pencil and paper. That pretty much includes everything that went before in the field of arts and literature. I have the distinct impression that 3D printing is in that same stage right now, maybe like Gutenberg printing press.
  • joneb
    i am 100% sure that the naysayers of 3d printing will also be on the long list of the blind who didn't see tablet computers or smart phones taking off, more than 1mb needed in a computer and so on. History is littered with failed gimmicks but also actual life changing products we often take for granted today that in the past were labelled as a fad or no one needs them.
  • 66tbird
    I'm an owner of the very model machine pictured. The author nailed it 100%. My printer took a lot of modifications to get it to make great quality prints. That took more skill than the average consumer can provide. Also most people don't 'get it' when it comes to what you can print. The term 'anything within the printers build volume' just doesn't trigger anything creative in their minds. The few that do get it don't know how to create it and get into a format the machine can understand. Every printer is a little different and few files work with all printers. 3D printers(ing) for the masses is not going to happen until the IQ of the general populous jumps to another level. I don't see critical thinking going that direction anytime soon. What would you like to print that you can't buy effortlessly? I'm an inventor and a prototyper so this machine is my toolbox.