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3D printing: Don't believe the hype

(MoneyWatch) For some time now, it appears that 3D printing -- the technology that builds physical objects on a small "printer" by progressively depositing layers of melted plastic -- is on the verge of going mainstream. Prices for 3D printers are plummeting, with units available for $1,000 or less. And pundits suggest that soon we'll manufacture all sorts of gadgets in our own homes that we once had to travel to a store to purchase.

For evidence of the promise of 3D printing, look no further than the Buccaneer, a Kickstarter project that is offering a polished, elegant-looking 3D printer for an attention-getting $397. That's about a third of the next cheapest 3D printer. Moreover, the Buccaneer team is promising user-friendly software for designing objects to print.

So are we really on the cusp of a fundamental shift in society, with disruptive 3D printing technology about to turn manufacturing and retail on its head? As editorial director of eHow Tech, I recently debated this question with CNET writer and former CBS MoneyWatch contributor Rick Broida over at eHow Tech in Geek Vs Geek: Is 3D Printing the Next Big Thing?

The pundits (as well as Broida) predicting the imminent ascendency of 3D printers have it wrong. 3D printers may disrupt industries and might become essential tools for homes and small businesses, but it won't happen in the next five or 10 years. Try 25 years -- or 50. Here's why you should think twice before rushing out to buy one of the new crop of affordable 3D printers:

They're too hard to use. 3D printers are like any technology in their infancy -- complicated. The biggest problem is that 3D printing is about as user-friendly as MS-DOS was back in 1987. Unless you're a tech fanatic with a specific interest in 3D printing, this is just too hard to do. And the learning curve is unlikely to shorten anytime soon.

There's not a lot of stuff you can print. For the most part, if you want to print something, that object needs to have already been created in the form of a 3D plan and stored online where you can download and print it. Otherwise, you pretty much have to do that yourself, which requires a lot of familiarity with computer aided design software. If you thought Photoshop was intimidating, you haven't seen anything yet.

You can't print much that's genuinely useful. Here's a little exercise you can do to test the 3D printing waters: Browse the Thingiverse, the open-source library of printable objects you can download and print with your 3D printer. What you'll probably find is that it's mostly a lot of toys and tchotchkes that have little practical use. One problem is that all you can print is plastic, and these printers can't create fully formed gadgets complete with moving parts. To make anything of any practical value, you need to print all the individual components and then assemble it by hand, adding in the stuff that can't be printed -- screws, springs, rubber bands, gaskets, printed circuits and so on. Unless our entire society is ready to become rugged individualists who hand-make all of their own goods and supplies, that hardly sounds like a transformative technology set to find its way into every home and business.

There are significant legal hurdles. Right now, people are 3D printing stuff without much regard for the intellectual property considerations. But as 3D printing goes more mainstream, we're going to run into the same kind of issues that impacted the music and movie industries. Whether you want to 3D print a crate of Legos for your kids or a replacement exhaust manifold for your dishwasher, the companies owning these products will almost certainly assert control over their IP. It could be decades before the dust settles on who can print what, and for an equitable business model to take root.

I could go on. Printing plastic is expensive. Many of today's 3D printers are finicky, requiring TLC to get good results. Many of the plastics used to print aren't even food-safe, so you can't use the bowls and spoons on Thingiverse to actually eat out of.

Will 3D printing solve these problems? Probably -- just not in the next decade. So my advice is to treat 3D printing like the diversion that it is, and don't expect that we'll be doing all of our own micro-manufacturing anytime before we have routine, affordable interplanetary space travel.

What do you think? Read the entire debate, and sound off here in the comments. I'd love to know what you think.

Photo courtesy of Cubify

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