Opinion

A 3D Printer is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

Christmas

Stories abound of 3D printers gathering dust from last Christmas. Don’t buy a 3D printer if you’re not prepared to learn how to use it.

Bloomberg Business claims that many of the 3D printers given as gifts in Christmas 2014 have gone largely unused. “Last Christmas’s 3D Printers Gather Dust as Stratasys Slumps“, screams the headline.

It’s undeniable that the 3D printing industry, and consumer machines in particular, have had a difficult 2015. We’re midway through the “trough of disillusion“, after all.

But claims of printers left unloved on shelves — like Wheezy the penguin in Toy Story 2 — are based on anecdotal evidence from only two people who have bought and been disappointed by their purchase.

Moreover, Bloomberg Business makes sweeping claims about the state of the entire industry based on the wobbly stock-price of two companies, Stratasys and 3D Systems.

This is not the foundation of a hard-hitting investigative report.

We can accept that early adopters may have experienced buyer’s remorse after a few weeks of frustration with their 3D printer. But for those folks who bought one for their kids for Christmas day? That’s the point where our sympathy shrivels down to zero.

Too harsh? Allow us to elaborate on a few points.

A 3D Printer is not a Happy Meal Toy

The story recounted in the Bloomberg Business article is fairly annoying. Here’s how it starts:

Anne-Isabelle Choueiri gave her kids a 3D printer last Christmas when they were hailed as the next big thing. Almost a year later, it’s been all but forgotten.

“It’s been recycled as a bedside table,” Choueiri, a 39-year-old digital consultant in New York, said of her $799 Da Vinci 1.0 AiO device from XYZprinting Inc.

Choueiri found her device fragile. And the results take time. A simple print of objects like a mini Eiffel tower or a lighthouse took two hours, and her kids, being kids, didn’t wait around.

Let’s unpack a few things here. Firstly, a 3D printer should not be considered an impulse buy. Before buying one, it’s best to research the model you’re looking at, and have a full idea of the capabilities.

Better yet, visit a Fab Lab or a Maker Space in your area, and get hands on. These places are only too happy to talk you through the details.

Secondly, a 3D printer is a delicate machine with potentially dangerous parts. Hotends designed to melt plastic; or motorised elastic pulleys on a Cartesian frame; these are not things to position next to a bed where you sleep

Thirdly, the 3D printer is only one part of an elaborate process. To get the most from it, you have to do more than download files from Thingiverse and then hit the “print button”.

You have to learn about 3D modeling, at a bare minimum, and have the patience to tweak the settings on your machine to get the model right.

Did Choueiri consider any of this before wrapping up that 3D printer for her kids? The article doesn’t elaborate. But would you buy a car before learning how to drive?


Let’s Derail the Hype Train

So who’s guilty of leaning this parent — and perhaps others — up this path?

Is it manufacturers, desperate to shift inventory from overstocked warehouses? Or is it the mainstream media, painting a giddy future of Star Trek replicators in every living room?

Honestly speaking, it’s a bit of both. Perhaps 3D printer manufacturers are guilty of overstating the simplicity of their products. The time it takes to print something, for example, is a subject that’s rarely discussed.

And as for the media… quite literally everyone has grown tired of the ridiculous narrative about 3D printed guns and human organs. There’s a substantial amount of eye-rolling whenever these stories are published (and it’s not just the 3D printed variety). How does that relate to what the average person wants from a 3D printer, exactly?

Potential customers must demand more from both manufacturers and the media. They should challenge them to be a little less excitable and a little bit more honest.

How easy is it to print something? Which materials are best for general use? How long does it take? Answering such questions is only the start.

Which brings us back to education. For our part, ALL3DP has a great many workshops, tutorials and “how-to” guides on this very site. Do some digging, and you’ll find other publications that offer the same.

Let’s get past the hype and change the conversation. All it takes is a rise in collective understanding among customer, manufacturer and media, so we’re all empowered to take full advantage of this fascinating technology.

Buyer Beware!

As consumers, we hold a great deal of power. Where we choose to spend our money is the difference between a business thriving and a business collapsing.

With the attendant excitement around 3D printing, there are a great many low-cost machines flooding the market. Tens of hundreds of bit players want a chunk of this new market, in the reasonable expectation that it will grow bigger.

Tempting as they may seem, you have to think twice before buying a low-cost printer. An unavoidable factor in the low price tag is that compromises have been made in the machine’s design and quality. The lower the cost, the greater the compromise.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have played a role in the emergence of the low-cost 3D printer. Some of them seem like very good propositions. Some of them have proven to be a disaster. Which is to say, you must be aware of the risks involved.

This is not to dismiss all crowdfunded 3D printers out of hand. Kickstarter has made a great many wonderful things possible. But every potential backer would be wise to scrutinise a campaign very, very carefully before choosing to invest.

We have advice on doing exactly that: 7 Clues a 3D Printing Kickstarter Campaign is the Real Deal.

The Outlook is Positive

ALL3DP attended the 3D Printshow in Paris earlier this year. In terms of physical space and exhibitors, the show was significantly smaller this year than previously. That trough of disillusionment, again.

But walking around the floor, we were struck by the optimism and the passion of all the industry players in attendance. Some of them were Kickstarter graduates, we might add.

Whether it was Zortrax, or Formlabs, or BeeVeryCreative, or Ultimaker, or 3Doodler, or 3DSlash, or WASP, or Sculpteo, or i.materialise  — all of them were there to showcase the capabilities of their products, and answer detailed questions from a curious public.

Now that the industry is maturing, the market is consolidating. Lessons are being learned about the quality of hardware and software, about raising the overall standard of quality of consumer 3D printing, and about reducing barriers to entry for people of varying abilities.

And hopefully, that means fewer folks buying 3D printers only at Christmas time. Instead, they’ll buy them all year round.

Christmas Yoda

Image credits: Nick Lievandag