Is the 3D printing hype overblown?

Some say it will be bigger than the internet and revolutionise everything from manufacturing to our kitchen. But is the potential of 3D printing overblown? Matthew Partridge reports.

Some say it will be "bigger than the internet" and revolutionise everything from manufacturing to our kitchen. But is the potential of 3D printing overblown? Matthew Partridge reports.

What's happening?

3D printing the process of creating three-dimensional objects from a computer model is back in the news. Quite a few dental surgeries already use the technique to create tailored crowns, bridges and implants on site. But the potential market is much bigger than that.

Technologist Chris Anderson, for example, is so convinced that it will "be bigger than the web" that he quit his job as the editor of technology magazine Wired late last year to write a book about it: Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. He now has plans to start a business based on it too.

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The Economist compares its impact to the invention of the personal computer. "[3D printing] could well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the PC trashed the traditional world of computing."

Why all the fuss now?

3D printing has been around in some form for decades car firms have used it for years to design and create prototypes, for example. However, lower costs and better technology mean that firms are increasingly also using it to produce limited runs of a finished product. As the technology improves, traditional assembly-line techniques may be used less frequently.

The impact may not be felt on the factory floor alone. Some primitive 3D printers are now cheap enough to be used at home by the likes of model enthusiasts. Meanwhile, one firm, MakerBot Industries, aims to make them as popular as inkjet and laser printers. Overall, consultancy Deloitte estimates that in America there is already a market worth nearly $200m.

What are the benefits?

The increased usage of 3D printing has the potential to slash production costs. Thanks to the precision of the printing process, it wastes much less material than conventional manufacturing. According to the American government's Department of Energy, the reduction can be up to 50% in energy savings and 90% in material costs for certain processes (see below for how this could affect food processing).

Large efficiency gains could also come from cutting out much of the retail supply chain. For instance, enthusiasts envisage a future where, rather than buying a product from a shop, or having it delivered to you from Amazon by courier, you simply download a design and then print it off at home. However, some of the most eye-popping developments may come from the world of medicine.

Denise Amrich of the technology website ZDNet predicts that, "We may only be a decade or so away from the ability to print actual human organs made from cultures of a patient's own tissue." This would cut waiting times for transplants and also the chances of an organ being rejected.

Are there any downsides?

Peter Nowak of Canadian Business sees a big one: "Printing out products and having them assembled by robots will be even cheaper than the human labour in China". While this may be good news for consumers, it "would make a good chunk of lower- and middle-class jobs obsolete on both sides of the world".

Some firms are nervous, fearing a repeat of the large-scale piracy that has devastated the video and music industries. With software available that can turn photos into designs, Wired's Clive Thompson points out that 3D printers will quickly become "photocopiers of stuff".

Consumers will then be able to take advantage of the fact that functional designs (for, say, car floorplans) are hard to copyright, and currently patent durations are limited. Thompson thinks that "this has all the makings of an epic and surreal legal battle", with industry lobbyists demanding even stricter copyright laws.

Is this whole thing being overhyped?

In August, the technology research firm Gartner put 3D printing at the very top of the "peak of inflated expectations" part of its "hype cycle". While it thinks 3D printing will eventually have "transformational" benefits, they warn that "there is a tremendous amount of hype around 3D printing and what it can or cannot do".

The fact that conventional printer manufacturers "basically remain on the sidelines" suggests that they think the area has limited potential. Manufacturing consultant Todd Grimm is even more sceptical in Plastics & Rubber Weekly.

He notes that even those manufacturing firms like EADS, which have promised to use 3D printed components in the future, do not actually do so at present. And many of the machines designed for the home hobbyist lack "the stability, the usability, the things that will actually make them work".

For now, 3D printing is "a poor substitute for conventional manufacturing". Nonetheless, we think it's a space to watch.

Printing food

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a think tank, estimates that the average developed-world consumer spends 150-300 hours a year buying and preparing food. Enter Jeffrey Lipton, a researcher at Cornell University.

According to The Guardian he has created a machine that turns liquids called hydrocolloids into edible foods by "printing" them layer by layer. Lipton has used it to create edible cheeses, meats and vegetables.

Celebrity chef Homaru Cantu has used a version of it since 2005 to create sushi at his Chicago restaurant. The machine prints gels onto edible paper using an adapted inkjet printer. He says it saves time and cuts down on packaging and wasted food. One firm, Essential Dynamics, is working on a $1,000 food printer and hopes that one day they'll be as common as a fridge or a kettle.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri