What Lies Ahead for 3-D Printing?

The new technology promises a factory in every home—and a whole lot more

The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine prints ear, nose and bone scaffolds that can be coated with cells to grow body parts. (Laurie Rubin)
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While 3-D printing offers the promise of democratizing design, it does so by letting Makers off the intellectual hook as they bypass deep knowledge of materials and process. As Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired Magazine, writes in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, “You don’t need to know how the machines do their work, or how to optimize their toolpaths. Software figures all that out.” That might not bode well for the future. Designing and producing only on computers, says Scott Francisco, an architectural theorist and designer who teaches at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, has the potential “to drown human learning, creative skills and even basic productivity with its information and numerical-technical approach to problem solving.” Sure, the machines themselves are innovative, but they reduce the need for designers to work face to face with collaborators—crafting and refining, one slow iteration after another. The next generation of designers, Francisco fears, will know little about how real materials look, feel and interact with each other, leaving people ill-prepared to be innovators in their own right.

Such worries may be premature, for 3-D printing has yet to reach either its “killer app” moment—which makes it as ubiquitous as home computers—or its “rubber ducky” moment, when it supplants mass manufacturing. Traditional methods of production in low-wage countries are still far faster and cheaper than additive manufacturing when large numbers of parts are needed, says Innovation Investment Journal’s Peter Friedman. And while Geomagic co-founder and CEO Ping Fu has predicted that “mass customization” will replace mass production, even matching it in costs, one can’t help feeling, gazing at a set of metal mixing bowls (to name just one household item), that customization isn’t always called for.

Yes, additive manufacturing is being used to create prosthetics and aircraft components—products that epitomize the technology’s sweet spot of low volume and high complexity. But for the vast majority of people, 3-D printing may remain an upstream, out-of-sight industrial process. Only the technorati, with cash to burn and a burning desire to Make, are likely to pursue desktop printers. Anyone else compelled to own a 3-D-printed skull ring will find easy satisfaction perusing the many on offer through print bureaus. Some of them are even anatomically correct.


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