Seriously guys and gals, enough with all the articles on 3D printing. The jaded side of me has been wanting to write this post for some time now. But I wanted to do a little research first (very little as it turns out….in fact I’m researching as I write). During my first cup of coffee I came up with this article about a cool, hip new start-up.
Cool headphone store.
“One thing you can’t do at [this] retail location — at least at first — is actually try on a pair of its headphones. “
But at least they have a 3D printer.
“I’m still waiting for my pair of earbuds to get printed”
Well, no matter. It seems everyone knows about and is getting a 3D printer these days. They are going to revolutionize retail, shipping, manufacturing….every aspect of our lives. The internet says so!
Well, wade through all the hype (with your 3D printed oar of course) and the reality is quite different in my opinion. I don’t think 3D printing is as revolutionary as everyone thinks it is, or at least not in the ways they’re thinking.
Here are my thoughts. Take a read while I pour another cup of coffee (in my Paleolithic-era ceramic mug).
3D Printing Isn’t New
The media makes it out like 3D printing is some new wonderful silver bullet. The reality is prototyping technology has been around for as long as people have been designing and making “stuff”. A really long time ago I was in college, and they had SLA’s and other means of creating parts from big vats of goo and lasers. Then a few years later they started laying down acrylic in rough beads inside a box (hello 3D printing) to make prototype parts. Now they can even make a human ear. This is all well and good, if you’re an industrial designer, engineer or doctor. But for the average marketplace based consumer, retailer, or brand 3D printing is basically irrelevant, and will be for quite some time.
In fairness though, the newfound accessibility of inexpensive 3D printing is pretty cool. Especially for design start-ups and those looking for novelty in store.
Home Based 3D Printing Is Nonsensical
Okay, so you shell out a few hundred, or few thousand, dollars and bring home a shiny new 3D printer, plop it down in the basement and you’re ready to never have to go to the store again.
You can download some files, from someone who may or may not know anything about design. And print anything you want, as long as it’s most likely plastic and a tchotchke smaller than a loaf of bread.
If you prefer to design your own “stuff” go for it. In all your free time you can learn how to operate the CAD program, and allocate a few days or weeks to actually design something from scratch…
…Or if you value the time you have left on this earth kick it old school by simply going online, click a button to buy and have conventionally-made, anything you want products show up next day on your doorstep (same day with drone delivery). Or you can goto a real store and take real products home instantaneously (pay for them first).
Everyone thinks 3D printers mean we’ll no longer goto stores and manufactures won’t have to ever make anything again. That’s like saying because you can grow a tomato plant, you’ll never have to buy food again and grocery stores will be obsolete.
Even in 5-10 years I don’t think 3D printers will impact the way most of us buy or sell. Not until we can print eyeglasses AND real lenses, or print shoes we’d actually want to wear. Even then people have to be willing to give up their time and money to do it all themselves. Sociologically I don’t believe we as a marketplace are headed to that extreme, but we’ll delve into that another time.
Retail Based 3D Printing Is Just As Silly
The only reason you’d need a 3D printer at the store is for 1) custom fit items or 2)….okay I can’t think of another reason.
Me: “Hey, I need a fuchsia color light switch cover.”
Random Store Associate: “Okay, there are only twenty-seven people waiting in front of you for their products to print….hold on I need to reboot the system…wait I have to clean the part up. Do you want a sand and coat for $12 more?”
78 minutes later….
Random Store Associate: “Here you go”
Hands over matte pink, rough rectangle of despair, with a little slot in the middle.
Me: “Wait, I forgot to tell you, it was supposed to have two slots”
3D Printed Products Kinda Suck
For all its hype, the reality is that parts made from 3D printers make awful consumer products. The printer spews out a thin line of acrylic or other material, most often plastic though, building up layer by layer whatever it is you want. What you’re left with (assuming you don’t have to “clean up” any supporting material), is a marginal product that is rough. The colors are basic and blocky. Likely it is made of one type of material (plastic), with no electronics, hinges, or other functional features. You basically have a high-tech version of the ashtray your kid could have made you at summer camp.
But without the touching memories.
The fact is modern manufacturing has perfected the art of making useful and desirable products, made from a concert of materials, for the masses. 3D printing will never replace the practice of skilled professionals, craftsmen and equipment manufacturing finished goods. Yes, 3D printing will help those people do their job, but don’t expect a 3D printer to spit out a comprehensive consumer product in your living room anytime soon.
They make parts, not products.
3D Printing Can’t Print The Things You Really Need
The only thing I would need a 3D printer for would be for replacement parts.
Once when I was a kid I assembled a foreign made RC car. It was awesome. And on the first test drive I ran it into a tree, breaking a critical nylon front suspension piece, that ultimately was the demise of my RC car. Back then it was impossible to find a replacement part.
That was one time in forty years having a 3D printer would have been life changing.
The truth is, even I don’t want to design my own toys or whatever they want me to design or download and print. What I want to do is get my work done and then spend time with my family, read, play video games, pet my cat or go drink a beer.
Here’s a list (click link) of 20 keys to happiness. No where does it say “print all of your own stuff with a 3D printer”.
If I need something I will buy it online, or in the store and have it be complete, shiny, new and functional. I will let professionals worry about the design, material selection, testing and manufacturing of the products I buy. Just as I let farmers worry about raising cows and growing soybeans.
Unless you’re an artist, and other than super special custom items, or hard to find replacement parts, I see no viable reason why consumers, retailers, or manufacturers would need marketplace based 3D printers. Also remember, we’ve developed a variety of ways to customize things before, so it’s not like we’re suddenly democratized with the advent of 3D printers for the masses.
So please, tone down the 3D printer hype. Let’s go back to living our lives and drinking our coffee from ceramic mugs that we buy from other people.
3D printers make the design and manufacturing process so much easier and quicker it is true. And I love the implications when it comes to tooling avoidance. But stop touting them as revolutionary and empowering for day-in day-out use in store or at home.
The technology isn’t there yet and may never be. Plus even so, will we want to make all this crap ourselves?
At least not until a 3D printer can print a pizza.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the topic in the comments below.
How will the technology affect your business?
How will it affect your home life?
Is it hype or the real deal?
Chris Weigand is an artist, industrial designer and President of Chris Weigand Design, LLC – a full service retail design consultancy. He doesn’t always bemoan technology, but he does take a logical and calculated look at the world around him. When he’s not challenging the status quo he spends his free time using nature’s 3D printers to make tomatoes, herbs and honey in his yard.
Visit our website at http://www.chrisweiganddesign.com or call Chris at 330.858.8926 to find out how we can help you with your branding and retail design needs.