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Would you buy an affordable 3D printer?

Pirate 3D printer

The world’s first affordable 3D printer is expected to hit the shelves in 2014. But are we ready for them? Would you spend your hard-earned cash on a 3D printer?

Cutting edge innovators Pirate 3D sent ripples through the technological world when they recently announced plans to launch a 3D printer that costs less than an iPhone.

The development of an affordable 3D printer has long been seen as the Holy Grail of ‘distributed manufacturing’ – the term given for making things locally without the need for big factories and heavy plant.

And if Pirate 3D’s promise becomes reality, it has the potential to catapult distributed manufacturing beyond its final frontier and into a new era of localised, make-it-at-home manufacturing with enormous implications.

Will consumers really take hold of 3D printing?

The current £2,000 price tag on MakerBot has so far been just enough to put off the bedroom software geeks and tech hobbyists from joining the 3D revolution. Similar to the early development of the personal computer, the introduction of affordable 3D printing could herald the moment when the techno geeks – and the general masses too – finally get their chance to hack, innovate, exploit and explore the full potential of this new and exciting technology.

But how radical will this change be? After all, we’ve been talking about innovations like this for quite a while. In his 1884 text, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, the libertarian socialist and writer William Morris wrote:

‘The first step towards making labour attractive is to get the means of making labour fruitful, the Capital, including the land, machinery, factories, etc. into the hands of the community, to be used for the good of all alike, so that we might all work at “supplying” the real “demands” of each and all.’

If that sounds strangely familiar, it’s because Morris’s words have been (largely unwittingly) echoed on a thousand technology blogs and news sites writing about 3D printing over the past couple of years.

So, have we finally got there? Does 3D printing herald the paradigm shift in the relationship between consumers and their products that Morris wrote about? Or will it just be business as usual but under a different guise?

Companies or consumers – how will 3D printers grow?

It seems to me that at this point the technology can go one of two ways, and that each direction has very different – and important – implications for us as a society.

In one version, innovation will be driven by the big guns, like Amazon and Tesco. These guys already know what they want from the technology, and you can be fairly certain that they will be viewing 3D printing as a new way to reduce the cost and impact of supply chains, and to move to ‘instant’, rather than same-day delivery. At the end of the day, everything is still very much in their control.

In the other version, innovation will be driven by communities and individuals, and will function as part of a more networked society. To explore this idea the MoMo was developed – a concept for 2030 that is currently on display at the Design Museum’s exhibition, The Future is Here. The MoMo allows consumers to scan their possessions and find out what they could be made into using a 3D printer.

As a concept, the MoMo explores the way that 3D printing might help us to develop a way of consuming products that isn’t about the relationship between a consumer and their individual possessions. Instead, each shopping (or printing) decision could form a node in a consumption network where production and consumption are seen as cyclical, collective acts.

In this version, the added personal and communal responsibility for the end users may help us to reduce waste and develop a stronger awareness of the materials that go into our products. Could the future of 3D printing be less about 3D printed shoes, and more about community development initiatives like Assemble & Join’s model of community micro-manufacturing? Now that’s a really exciting idea.

This opinion piece from Phillida was first published on the Forum for the Future.


I wonder what you expect 3D printers to be capable of producing, with the limited materials suitable. My take is that for prototyping solid object designs they are a very powerful tool, but for all but a limited range of usable items, will they be practical?
Perhaps contributors could suggest what they could produce that would be useful.

No, I see no need for such an expensive item. I almost couldn’t be bothered commenting in this Conversation as the topic is not relevant to my daily life. Perhaps when you ask a question like this, you should include a Poll so we can all have our views counted just by participating in the Poll.

I don’t think I’m in the market for a 3D printer, but it would be good to have a go at making something with one.

I greatly enjoyed having a go at making things with metal and wood turning lathes, though I did not have the need or the wish to do this more than once.

richard says:
25 September 2013

No – it is not the price – I paid just as much for a colour Laser printer – but the lack of use I’d give it – The laser printer was used daily producing 10s of 1000s of news letters at high speed – I have no perceived use for a 3D printer.. I have metal and wood turning lathes because I use them often

I think there are at least four problems with domestic 3D printers that will limit their uptake.

Firstly, I wouldn’t want a 3D printer the size of a washing machine sitting in the corner of the room. So I might be limited to constructing articles that would maybe fit within the footprint of a conventional inkjet printer today. Making something really useful like a new plastic kitchen colander to replace the one I’ve just broken is then going to be out of the question.

Secondly, speed of production is going to be very slow and – for larger objects – almost unworkable, since construction time is proportional to volume (a cubic function). I might be able to strain the spaghetti by tomorrow evening if I start making that replacement colander now. Or I could just order a new one from Amazon and have it delivered by tomorrow lunchtime.

Thirdly, as with inkjet printers, the cost of the feedstock material will be kept artificially high to subsidise the capital outlay, so making that plastic colander would end up costing maybe £50-£100 in consumables.

Fourthly, if I can only use low-melt thermoplastic, UV-set resin or similar as my feedstock, as opposed to say metals or ceramics, anything I can make myself is going to have the properties of a cheap plastic novelty of the sort found in a Christmas cracker. Would my 3D-printed colander be food-safe and survive boiling water? Will it turn into a sticky blob and block the pump in my dishwasher?

I do see many applications for commercial 3D printers – maybe your main car dealership will have one, so that obscure components can be printed out on demand. Given the ridiculous cost of some car parts, the high cost of 3D printing can probably be disguised and absorbed in savings on warehousing and distribution.

But 3D printing in the home I predict will remain a technology looking for an application, until there are some further advances made in speed and the types of materials it can handle.

When we discussed 3D-printing before, I was concerned about possible health hazards, particularly with the plasticisers required to give plastics the desirable characteristics. Some plasticisers are quite hazardous and processing must be done with adequate ventilation to remove fumes.

I am encouraged to see that PLA (polylactic acid) is one of the plastics used for 3D-printing. This is a biodegradable plastics and safe plasticisers are available. The main hazard seems to be ultrafine particles, so some extraction system would be needed for safe use indoors.

In the early days of computers we used them for fairly worthless purposes such as learning BASIC and rudimentary games. Applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, email and the Web came along later, making computers useful to everyone. I don’t know about domestic use, but industrial machines capable of processing high grade plastics could be very useful tools.

This is one of many computer-controlled “manufacturing” machines, but limited by the choice of materials that generally will rarely match the requirements of a durable object – hence their application for prototyping designs and some specialist applications such as mold making for a manufacturing process like casting.
There are computer-controlled routers, punch-presses, water-cutting all geared up to particular types of practical materials. My vote for a home-machine would be a Laser Cutter to make complex shapes in thin sheet materials such as paper, card, board, aluminium, steel, plastics. Usable objects would result and layers can be built into more solid structures.