Around 2012, you had big news coming out about 3D printing: Things like replacement body parts being produced for about 1% the cost, individuals being able to produce guns off the printer, etc. You could go to Barnes & Noble and/or Books-a-Million and buy household models of 3D printers for very affordable costs. It was said that it would go on to become the "next industrial revolution".

...What happened? It's 2020 now, and it's been several years since I've heard of it on a regular basis. It's still around, sure, but mainly in factories, specialized shops, a few hobbyists' homes, and that sort of thing. In general, it's like the Internet was before the 90's.

It was such a versatile, powerful technology though, and it didn't cost that much to get just a very basic one. So especially given both the hype and the legitimate results from around 2012 and 2013, why is 3D printing currently like the Internet before the 90's, instead of the Internet after the 90's?

I am a software person and will probably get lost on a lot of non-layman's speak regarding hardware.

To be clear, I'm not specifically referring to industrial-grade 3D printers. I just mean ones that can at least work with soft plastic or wood that can at least create cheap, little stuff to set around the house or something. These were being sold on store shelves around 2013.

Both \$150 household gadgets and \$250k industrial devices are included, the same as if this were talking about computers being a "standard commodity".

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    $\begingroup$ Initial cost, running cost, space needed, and the time required to produce even simple things - a phone stand can be 40 hours, which can be made with other methods much quicker. Also with times like that power failures can be catastrophic... $\endgroup$
    – Solar Mike
    Jul 21, 2020 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ The only materials you can 3D print on "cheap" printers are fairly useless for any purpose that requires strength. A decent quality 3D metal printer costs around a quarter of a million dollars or more. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Jul 21, 2020 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ THere's no such thing as a very basic 3D metal printer, especially for use by unskilled operators. They involve the the use of high-powered (i.e. blinding lasers even if you look it mid-beam through the air rather than a reflection), fine metal powders, and noble gasses. Sure, you can enclose the laser inside the equipment with safety interlocks (which is still more complexity), but it's not so easy to do the same with the metal powders. The noble gasses are also a rather expensive consumable, as is metal powder. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 21, 2020 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ Why should they. I work with architecture, art and engineering students (in alphabetical order). We have lathes, CNC machines, waterjet cutters and lasers and 3D printers (metal and plastic), foundy and you name it. And you know what machine students use most? By a large margin, used more than any other resource. The laser cutter, its understandable, fast, versatile, makes parts that look like something that came out of a factory, parts are large enough for furniture and structures, and easy to design for. All of those features are either lacking on 3D print or expensive. $\endgroup$
    – joojaa
    Jul 22, 2020 at 15:05

3 Answers 3


One facet of this discussion which hasn't yet been discussed is 3D modelling literacy.

Think for a moment about regular '2D Printers'. You may have one at home - but what do you use it for? For printing out artwork to put on your walls? Glossy photo-books for your coffee table? Magazines? Cardboard Packaging? No - mostly, you will be printing items that you have created yourself, such as letters or posters perhaps. Users recognise the limitations of home (2D) printers, and do not expect them to produce 'production-quality' artworks. Their usefulness is in their ability to provide custom items, with no delay. The primary use for home printers, is to print user-created content

So, too, it is with home 3D printing. As discussed above, home printers are no good for simply replacing commercial solid items such as car parts, guns, etc., and we should not expect them to be, in the same way you don't expect an inkjet to print out wallpaper. What they are invaluable for, however, is user-created content, where the object in question cannot be purchased. I've lost track of how many 3D printed 'bits' there are around my home, but, over 90% of these are items that have been designed by me, to fit a specific need.

The learning curve for 3D modelling, is much steeper than for text-editing. Users can open MS Word, type something out, and press the print button with no prior experience at all - sure the finer details of formatting can take a while to get to grips with, but that first hurdle to entry is really low. 3D modelling is much more difficult for a beginner.

I see all the time hobbyists with their new 3D printers who are primarily printing designs that they've downloaded from the internet, to varying degrees of success. This is like only ever printing out photos that you downloaded from google images on your inkjet.

So - to get back to your question, the 2012 hype surrounding 3D printers was linked iirc to expiring Stratasys patents on FDM/FFF technology, and this has led to much more readily available consumer printers, but these are mostly pushed by smaller companies and open-source projects. Why haven't any big corporations got in on the act? Why is HP targeting the high end industrial market only? I imagine they've done their market research, and discovered that there simply isn't the demand. Users who are unable to create content, don't have a need for a printer.

Kids at school right now are seeing 3D modelling being introduced as part of the curriculum, in a way I remember being taught about MS Word etc. when I was at school - I'm sure it won't be long until most adults have some basic 3D modelling capability, and then, perhaps consumer 3D printing will 'take off'.

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    $\begingroup$ The learning curve for simple 3D modelling is actually very low - SketchUp is hardly more difficult to learn than MS Paint. It's also very limiting though; the learning curve goes nearly flat in the beginning, only to outpace professional software like SolidWorks somewhere shortly past "moderately complex", as convenience features that make the easy stuff very easy start getting seriously in the way of getting the complex stuff done. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jul 22, 2020 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, but compared to MS Word - click new document, and you don't even need to select a tool, just mash the keyboard, and you can print your shopping list. $\endgroup$ Jul 22, 2020 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @SF. Learning curve for 3D applications is not terribly steep. Not even learning professional software. But people have two main problems when it comes to this. Hardly nobody wants to do simple stuff on onset, they want to design grand stuff. The learning curve for that is too steep and most people can not be bothered to learn simple stuff first. Second people are at loss as to what to design. They can hardly write down the general requirements of the thing they are doing. So the main problem begins for most people before they hit the 3D design software in the firstplace. $\endgroup$
    – joojaa
    Jul 22, 2020 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @joojaa - Yes, you're bang on with that comment. It's not just the software that's preventing people from creating their own custom content - there's certainly more to it than that. $\endgroup$ Jul 22, 2020 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JonathanRSwift: You completely forgot how your first contact with a qwerty keyboard went, did you? $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Jul 22, 2020 at 15:32

Not sure an anecdote will generalise to all applications, but certainly in research we very often resort to 3D printing as a first pass and especially when we need things fast, cheap, when its utility does not justify producing engineering drawings, or when parts are too complex for more conventional subtractive fabrication methods like CNC machining, i.e. taking material away rather than adding it on.

Startup cost: You can get decent plastic printers from £800+ to a few £k now that can print ABS-like materials, e.g. Ultimaker, Makerbot, etc. More expensive MJP-type printers like the Objet and Projet still go for tens of thousands. Like DKNguyen said, metal printers require specialised training to use as it's pretty dangerous and expensive. Clearing the metal supports is difficult - imagine breaking thousands of tiny metal struts. If you're talking about it being a standard commodity like a laptop, then the plastic printers above are your best bet.

Material strength: ABS-like stuff is pretty strong at room temperature - Lego makes its bricks out of ABS. Material properties are published by manufacturers so you can compare the range of filaments out there.

Material cost: A 1kg roll of filament for the Ultimaker goes for about £30-£40. Support costs a bit less I think. You could probably print a new printer housing with this much material.

You could go full-out MacGyver and build your own for much cheaper. There are loads of tutorials out there now (as opposed to 2012 I'm guessing) that teach you how to build your own 3D printer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you now have gas turbine manufacturers testing 3D printed components, e.g. blades and fuel nozzles

I guess the main reasons why 3D printing is not in larger commercial use are quite varied depending on the industry. Take Lego bricks for example, these are made by injection moulding which can produce many bricks from a single mould very quickly and to a very high degree of accuracy and repeatability. If you tried to print them even with multiple print heads running, they'd take tens of minutes depending on print speed and layer thickness, and the surface finish would be very poor. You'd need to hire many people or buy additional machinery to break/dissolve the support material and sand the parts so that they have that nice polished look. The cost to switchover from more established and well understood technologies would be enormous and may only be justifiable for very high cost parts

If you wanted it for home use, it's cheaper and more convenient than ever before. Want a computer case fan? Print it. Too lazy to hold your phone while watching videos? Print a holder. Need a waste paper basket? Print it. Just as long as you're not planning to sell the printed parts.


Most people when asked want to do quite big items. Why wouldn't they? After all they live in a world where objects are table and chair sized. 3D printing usually can not do objects much larger than a pocketbook. Which is in the lower end of the size of things that people want to do. I mean sure at work we have a printer with a cubic meter envelope. But even then people usually back away from the project when they realize that their print would take ten days to complete under optimal circumstances.

Second most people want to do everything in one session. They dont want to design piece 1 with 3D printer piece 2 by tablesaw and go to hardware store for other parts. Its too convoluted, too far away from the goal and takes too much time. People usually have a short window of interest during which they need to be able to get their thing done or it will just never get done because other things fight for your time.

Third most people dont see inside of objects thy see the user interface and casing and want to be able to do those things. So having the slightly rough look and feel is a turnoff. People are shocked when they realize that the print has to be cleaned and prepped for final quality. While you can do very nice final surface quality with high end printers that cost tens of thousands its really expensive to use. People often get shocked when the consumables of their high end mockup print is in the hundreds.

But yes 3D printing is very useful for making jigs, fixtures, pressbrake dies, small replacement parts, moulds etc... Just not something most people do. And from manufacturing point of view its too expensive to print even relatively short batch runs. Because the cost and time of 3D printing is linear ( O(N)) while many other processes the cost is lower but also less than linear (say log(n) or even lower for something like injection moulding) since their setup cost can be high but after that each part comes out at minutes or seconds at costs of cents. This makes it easier to justify the design cost. Very few products would be viable if you needed to pay for design of each.

So there is no big need for mass customisation of hardly structural, small, nonvisual parts. And those industries that need these are still immature wait another 10 or 20 years. But maybe your spare parts are allready printed as keeping a back catalogue is expensive, why not just print one. Car companies allready do this to some extent.


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