Do you need a 3D printer?
3D printers are still somewhat expensive, but within the next few years, you'll surely have one in your home to print everything from toys to drinking cups — according to the industry's rosy predictions. Unless, of course, 3D printing is not nearly as useful for the everyday consumer as it's been hyped up to be.
"The maker will always like the 3D printer, and the enthusiast will always like the 3D printer," said Nick Allen, founder of 3DPrintUK, a professional 3D-printing outlet. "Nine out of 10 people just want the cheapest and best-quality thing — or even the cheapest thing."
Allen is a curious sort of advocate for 3D printing. He adores the technology, both for enthusiast and professional applications. Still, he has an engineering background and believes that hype for 3D printers has outstripped realism about their cost-effectiveness and eventual ubiquity.
"I'm absolutely 100 percent for [3D printing], and I wouldn't have devoted my life to it otherwise," Allen told Tom's Guide. "I want to manage people's expectations."
While 3D printers have enormous creative potential, Allen said, they will not be cost-effective for everyday use anytime in the near future. Allen points out that unless users know how to design their own products, they will likely fall back on downloading plans from the Internet, which are not always reliable.
"Files on the Internet are not moderated," he said. "Half of them don't print, and the other half pay absolutely no attention to the printability of the item and the amount of material they use."
Suppose you wanted to make a shopping basket to carry to and from the grocery store. "If you put a value to that, you'd probably say $5 or $10," Allen said. However, 3D-printing materials are expensive, and even a simple shopping basket could cost up to $3,000. "It takes a lot of time, and a lot of material," Allen said.
Conversely, small objects — even very complex ones — do not cost very much to print. "If you saw an incredibly ornate, tiny model railway engine with very high detail, you'd think, 'That's going to cost me hundreds.' But actually, that would probably cost you $10," Allen said.
This is why jewelry designers on crafts site Etsy and cosplayers (people who create and wear costumes of their favorite pop culture characters) at conventions can benefit a lot from 3D printing, but ordinary people are probably better off with manufactured goods. Printing a cup, a basket or a lamp takes a lot of material; printing a necklace from an obscure video game costs very little.
"The materials of crafting are expensive for 3D printing," said Allen. "You're not buying material; you're buying a product."
Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing does not work with raw materials, but rather plastic or metal in a highly refined, prepackaged state. "That material is manufactured into a spool — a very closely controlled powder or high-quality resin."
"You buy a product to put into your product to make another product," Allen explained. "You're just adding things to the supply chain."
AN ALTERNATE VIEW: How 3D Printing Will Save You Money
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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.