Roadblocks and Implications for 3D Printing

As we've outlined here, and here, there is terrific potential for 3D printing to positively impact the world in a big way. The incredible promise of developing technologies like bioprinting, food printing, and small batch manufacturing could one day save lives, feed the hungry, and democratize manufacturing in ways that the world has never seen.

But the 3D printing industry is relatively young, and there are significant technological and moral hurdles that it must pass before any epoch-shifting change can grow out of it.

We're confident that 3D printing will one day live up to many of its most ambitious promises, but until then, let's take a look at some of the challenges and boundaries that it must first cross:

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Material Limitations

3 d Printer
Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Take a look around you and observe some of the consumer objects and devices in the room around you. take careful note of the wide range of colors, textures, and material types that these things are composed of, and you'll have gained insight into the first major limitation of 3D printing as a current consumer technology.

 

While high-end industrial printing systems deal admirably with plastics, certain metals, and ceramics, the range of material types that can't yet be printed is extensive and notable. Additionally, current printers simply haven't reached the level of sophistication necessary to deal with the wide range of multi-material surface types that we find around us on a daily basis.

Researchers are making headway on multi-material printing, but until that research comes to fruition and matures this is going to remain one of the major hurdles in the rise of the 3D printing industry.

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Mechanical Limitations


Likewise, in order for 3D printing to become truly mainstream (as a consumer technology), there need to be advances in the way that it with mechanical complexity.

3D printing in its current state is very good at recreating geometric and organic complexity at the shape level. Virtually any static shape that can be dreamed up and modeled can be printed. However, the tech breaks down when it must deal with moving parts and articulation.

This is less of a limitation at the manufacturing level, where assembly can be handled down the pipe-line, however if we're ever going to reach a point where your average consumer can simply print "ready-to-go" objects from a home-printer, mechanical complexity is something that needs to be dealt with.

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Intellectual Property Concerns


One of the biggest concerns as 3D printing moves further into the consumer sphere is the extent to which digital copies/blueprints for real-world objects will be propagated, monitored, and regulated.

Over the past decade, we've seen intellectual property rights come to the forefront in a big way for the music, film, and television industries. Piracy is a real concern for content creators, and it's become quite apparent that if something can be copied, it will be copied. Because the "blueprint" files used in 3D printing are digital, without any sort of protective DRM they can be easily duplicated and shared.

However, much of the consumer printing industry was built on the back of the open-source Maker Movement, who value free-information and eschew heavy-handed DRM. Exactly how IP regulation will play out with respect to 3D printing remains to be seen, but it's undoubtedly something that will need to be dealt with until a balance is struck.
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Moral Implications


I won't say too much about moral implications, because this is something that may not need to be addressed for quite some time, but with the promise of bioprinted organs and living tissue becoming more and more probable, there will undoubtedly be those who object to the technology on a moral level.

If and when bioprinting becomes a reality, the careful control and regulation of the technology is going to be a huge, huge concern.

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Cost


And last but not least is cost. As it currently stands, the cost of 3D printing is too high to be practical for most consumer applications. Cost is a two pronged problem at this stage in the industry's maturation, as the price of raw materials and high-end printers is simply too high to be feasible for home-users.

This is completely natural for a growth industry, of course, and prices will stabalize and continue to drop as the technology becomes more and more engrained. We're already seeing the prices of hobbyist printer kits beginning to fall under $1000, and even though those low-end offerings are limited in their utility it's still a positive sign of things to come.

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