I’ve been doing a lot of 3D modelling recently. Making 3D models with the intent of running those digital files through a 3D printer and turning them into physical objects. There is a slightly different mindset required for objects that are intended for the real world. Games and video allow you to get away with a lot of nastyness that reality just isn’t well suited for. Like gravity. Gravity is a thing that you have to deal with in the real world. Also, objects can’t usually pass clean through other objects without at least one of them becoming a broken object. You know, technical stuff.
Joking aside, 3D printers are incredible inventions that let you relatively quickly produce custom objects in your home, and more importantly, produce copies and iterations on that object. Sure, clay might predate humans by a fair bit, but if you sculpt something from clay, or wax, or butter, you will have to do exactly the same amount of work to make another one. With a 3D printer it will only take more time, not more work. So why isn’t everyone using a 3D printer? They sort of suck.
There are a lot of nerds out there touting the 3D printing revolution, fewer now that the bloom is off, but still more than I would expect. Here is the main problem, and the reason why the 3D printing revolution is a ways off yet. Nerds have fun differently.
I have worked at a few places operating CNC machines. Those are the type of machine that you always see on How It’s Made casually milling a car wheel out of a solid aluminum disk. They usually have to be enclosed in some sort of ballistic plastic chamber and they have a milk like coolant sprayed on them non stop. They look loud, fast, and dangerous, and they are, but operating them is also mind numbingly methodical, repetitive, and technical. All things that nerds love and everyone else cuts across the room to avoid. They are not what you would call user friendly.
3D printers operate almost exactly the same way as those CNC machines, instead of a high velocity cutting tool or welding tool attached to it, you have a high class hot glue gun. The glue gun portion melts some plastic line and squeezes it through a tiny hole. The plastic quickly cools down and hardens into whatever shape you had the moving around parts draw out. It does this one layer of plastic at a time until a 3 dimensional shape is a built. It is all at once, ridiculously simple and remarkably precise. The quality of the product of that process is either amazing, or terrible, depending entirely on your point of view. It is a great way to prototype and test, but you would never in a million years mistake a 3D printed part for a cheap mass produced object created in an industrial injection mold. They just look better than the 3D printed objects.
For a revolution to happen, 3D printing would have to be high quality, fast, and user friendly. It is none of those things. Machines are available now that inch us closer to the first two, but that last one, user friendly, that just isn’t possible. Attempting to create software that makes the end to end process of 3D modelling, setting the model up for print and running a motion program on the printer to create the object, would completely squander the promise of these machines. You can create new versions of objects, with tweaks and alterations, but all of that takes work. Work carried out in non-user friendly software using sometimes unintuitive workflows. It’s not impossible, it might not even be that hard, but it takes work. Specifically methodical, repetitive, and technical work. The sort of work that a lot of nerds, myself included, enjoy. Since we find these things fun, we wrongly assume that other people will find it fun too, and that leads to people saying dumb things, like 3D printing is a revolution in product design and manufacturing, and even dumber, everyone will have one in their home.
There you go. Unless you are one of the nerdy few who enjoy messing with stuff that will probably never really work right, don’t get a 3D printer. To all of you who actually read this far, welcome to this exclusive and sorta stupid club. Let print some junk.