Wednesday, August 07, 2013

3D printer for home fabrication a win?

Jackie Blue writes:

Dis true, Mr. Economist?

My response:the first commenter says what I would have said, only he says it better.

John: "25 hours per item, I will assume they already factored in the need for ventillation and power for the device and move to the real issue. Quality control, repairs and finishing are going to eat up many hours the first time each person creates an item with many mistakes along the ways likely requiring reprints and modifications before it will work. Between the labour cost and the material losses from each reprint, I very much doubt their estimates of cost per item. This is the same logic that people use to say I can renovate my own house for half the cost. It may be true if everything goes well but since they lack experience will end up doing everything twice and wasting alot of material through the process eating up most if not all of the DIY savings. 

Besides, most of the 3D printed items can be found in a dollar store, so unless you are comparing some high end spatula to a 3D printed one, there is no savings."

So, that's what I think.  But it might be true that it is a small business opportunity. A place that's remote from transport could have a person set up a higher speed printer, and then run it to fabricate a bunch of things that would be expensive to bring in. There are parts of Australia, and of course much of New Orleans, that are like that.


John Covil said...

There's no way it's ready for "showtime" for the average consumer. In fact, it sounds like they're useful in the same way home computers were useful at first: not very. But maybe getting in at the ground-floor now will pay larger dividends down the road when the technology matures, as with computers.

Thomas W said...

I agree that 3D printers aren't ready for most consumers. They will become more useful when they can make metal parts (or plastics which can replace metal parts), but then a major use is likely to be replacement parts which are no longer made (for classic cars, older appliances, etc).

Since (due to tax rules) companies no longer keep part inventories for old products yet some of these products have lifetimes of 20+ years, 3D printers along with plans for the parts (which don't require warehousing) could be very useful.

enoriverbend said...

The limitations noted by Thomas W. and John and others are true for now. And John is correct to weigh in against the original "pay for themselves" story.

But the possibilities do not end with making items JUST LIKE you can buy in a store. It's like an amateur woodworker buying a fancy $1500 Delta table saw -- some might use it to build birdhouses that cost $150 to build that are not as good as you can buy for $50; some might use it for beautiful one-off pieces of art or furniture you cannot buy elsewhere; some might use it as a springboard into semi-pro and then professional status. I suspect the same will be true for 3D printers, particularly as they drop in price and rise in competency, and as Thomas W noted when metal working is supported it will be a game-changer. Even better plastics will jack up the feasibility. And I look forward to seeing artists latch onto these for artistic purposes.

gcallah said...

"This is the same logic that people use to say I can renovate my own house for half the cost."

And, of course, this almost always ignores the opportunity cost: a lawyer who bills at $300 an hour would have to finish six times as fast as a $50 / hour carpenter before it would pay to do it himself.

aub said...

I think tagert1975 said it better - "Why is every article on 3D printing written by someone who has apparently never used it?"

I may be a cynic, but I don't think 3d printers will ever be a common household appliance. I think the proper analogue is not the paper printer, but the sewing machine. How many of us design and sew our own clothes - heck, how many US fashion manufacturers sew their own clothes?

There's a lot to be said for bespoke and small runs, but not many are interested in crafting their own clothes much less their own plastic gizmos.

By the way, some can print metal. As an anniversary present a few years ago, I gave my wife a silver bracelet that can only be made by 3d printing (but on a super-expensive machine - I used a well-known service).

Alternatively, some folks have gotten decent results from 'Lost PLA casting', where they take a model they printed in starch-based PLA plastic and pack sand around it. They then pour molten aluminum, melting the PLA and producing an aluminum version of the print.

John Covil said...

Hmm, maybe you're right aub. That could be a better comparison than my PC comparison. I guess time will tell.

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gcallah said...

"I may be a cynic, but I don't think 3d printers will ever be a common household appliance."

Not so much a cynic, but more the equivalent of people who, in 1995, were telling me "This whole web thing is just a fad: why would the ordinary person ever be interested?"

aub said...

It's very possible you're right, Gene. But your comment is along the "They called Einstein crazy" style argument. Not every person with a crazy idea is an Einstein. And not every new idea is the internet. For every internet, there are several Laserdiscs.

I stick by my analogy. I consider sewing machines one of the top 10 greatest inventions in the world.

Outside of San Fran and some warmer climates, clothes are ubiquitous. But I don't know that many people that own a sewing machine, let alone spend time surfing the internet looking up patterns and fabrics. Or, even more, designing their own clothes.

People are busy and don't like to spend their free time thinking about manufacturing - clothes, food, furniture, or mass-produced plastic parts.

Some people like personalized items. But for most of them, they prefer to purchase the custom pieces from others (places like Etsy or Personal Creations).

3d printers are getting better and hopefully the price of filament will drop significantly.

But right now, the low-cost FDM's mentioned in the article are good for hobbyists and first-adopters that don't mind spending an insane amount of time tweaking hundreds of parameters in software, firmware, and hardware.

Max said...

Well, of course opportunity costs are something to consider, but as with do-it-yourself home renovation, the costs are sometimes measured differently. How much does learning something new and profound value against actually just doing the job. I could buy very good, very expensive speakers, or I waste multiple weekends to build some myself, learning a lot of stuff in the meantime. Do I value that more?

The second issue is with economics of scale. Yes, mass-produced items from dollar shops are still more efficient, cheap and over all a better deal. But what if you want an item that perhaps a hundred people on the world want? In that case there is no market that will be served by a company, at least not in the beginning.

Instead you are designing the item and then a hundred people can produce it for a price that excludes shipping and starting a company.

The other great branch of items I think will be hot, are forbidden ones. And here I believe we have the great libertarian potential, circumventing the almighty big brother /big mother apparatus. How much is liberty worth to you?

Commercially, this will be used in prototype productions and probably at some time it will be in-sourced rather than outsourced in some companies. It is also only the precursor for powder metal 3D laser forming, that will allow us to produce metal tools out of a pack of metal powder.

Eric Hammer said...

My friends and I have been working with 3D printers and parts for a while now, with mixed results. We used a filament style printer to make small parts, then cleaned them up a little for resin recasting for mass production.
Filament printers are probably never going to be terribly popular, but the better "consumer" models use lasers and are pre-calibrated, much like paper printers. What holds them back is mainly the cost of the goo that the lasers cure, and that is due to go off patent protection in about 4 years, if I recall.

The main difference between 3D printers and sewing machines is that you don't need to sit and watch the printer for it to work, neither do you need to develop the skills to make it work like you do a sewing machine. You need to know the software, but once they are released commercially the firmware and hardware will be as transparent as with paper printers now, and software will probably be of the form "download this file type, load it up in the launcher, then print it out." There are already many services like Shapeways where you just send them the file of your design they print it out and send it to you. Having desktop models allows for the reverse: download the plan, print it yourself.

I would agree that 3d printers are not ready quite now, but the constraint seems to be the patent on the photo reactive goo, not the hardware itself. Last I saw a German company had a desktop model for <2000$ in production.

Anonymous said...

Likely what will determine whether this is the next internet or the next sewing machine will be its ability to print in a variety of materials simultaneously. To print the iPhone 9 for example.