Facts versus Myths

The 3 Most Common 3D Printing Misconceptions

3D printing misconceptions

If you’re into 3D printing, Rachel Park doesn’t need an introduction. As a journalist, she covered the 3D printing and additive manufacturing sector since 1996. She led 3D Printing Industry as Editor in Chief and also edited Disruptive Magazine for 3D Printshow. Currently, Rachel works as an independent freelance journalist and runs her own copywriting and editing company.

These are the 3 Common Misconceptions of 3D Printing

Rachel Park is an accomplished print and web writer and editor with more than 24 years’ experience. Her specific area of expertise is the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing sector, a market she has been immersed in since 1996.
Rachel Park is an accomplished print and web writer and editor with more than 24 years’ experience.

At the end of last week, I was giving a presentation to a small group of people that knew about 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing but didn’t KNOW about it. I had been asked to present an overview of the industry and clarify some of the main applications and issues. With it being such a small group, it was an informal affair, with plenty of Q&As and discussion.

It was a timely meeting, particularly given my post for All3DP last week on converting awareness to understanding, and it highlighted many of the misconceptions that exist about 3D printing presently, which need to be overcome.

It’s not just me either, as I started the long journey home from London after my meeting, I was pondering these things, while looking for some reading materials, for the train and coincidentally — fortuitously(?) — came across a post entitled “3D Printing, What’s that then?” from Stuart Sandeman that followed my own train of thought. Stuart is a 3D Printing Engineer, currently at Hobs Studio, previously at CA Models, and he works daily with a range of additive machines. I found myself smiling at a couple of his anecdotes and nodding vehemently in agreement at his main points — disconcerting the lady sat opposite me on the train (I apologized, and she smiled warily!) I’d recommend giving it a read.

For me though, among many, there are three misconceptions about 3D printing that stand out and reoccur most often:

  1. All 3D printers are alike? Not at all. I think perhaps the most dominant misconception is that a 3D printer is a 3D printer is a 3D printer. By this, I mean that many people (that are aware but don’t understand) assume that 3D printing is one process, and if you have a 3D printer then you can do whatever you want with it and achieve any or all of the applications they read about in the press. This is, of course, about as far from reality as it is possible to get. Even just the price range of 3D printers available today (£200 – £1.5 million) can be used to dispel this one quickly. But better to back it up with an explanation of the many different processes (Laser or electron beam melting, stereolithography, digital light processing, selective deposition lamination, fused filament fabrication, material jetting etc) that the different types of 3D printing platforms utilize. Going into further detail, explaining the different capabilities and materials/material types (powder, filament, photopolymers, paper etc) of the different processes, culminates in the singular conclusion that no one 3D printing process can fulfill any or all applications.
  1. “Make anything you want” isn’t helpful. One of the side-effects of the many over-hyped headlines about 3D printing is a tendency for many to believe that a 3D printer can “make anything.” From aircraft, to supercars, to livers, hearts and prosthetics, houses bridges and many, many more — inspiring stories about 3D printing abound. While these are all applications on which 3D printing has had a significant impact in terms of R&D, component production, or product development; in the majority of cases 3D printing has been an enabling factor not a singular production process for the entire application and the context is often overlooked or ignored. The limitations of 3D printing such as build volume sizes, materials and volume production to name a few are obvious barriers to the “make anything” misconception, but they’re not always obvious to everyone and thus this argument needs expounded far and wide.
  1. Reality vs. future potential. The final 3D printing misconception I am addressing here is really an extension of the second one above, but it is a reoccurring problem — in the press and in people’s understanding of 3D printing technologies and it is perhaps more difficult to overcome. I am talking about the confusion that exists about today’s reality versus the obvious (but undefined) future potential of 3D printing. I say the “obvious future potential” because I do believe 3D printing will have a greater and deeper impact on manufacturing and on society than anything we see today — I believe that is inevitable. However, despite those expectations, today when the precursory research and development with 3D printing gets reported, it is often without proper context and explanation. For example and from personal experience, during a week that a breakthrough in bioprinting R&D occurs things can get very confused — lets go with the liver portion by Organovo. That research outcome was published on numerous 3D printing and tech sites, it even made it to the evening news on numerous TV networks I think. I subsequently received a steady stream of texts, tweets, direct FB messages from family, friends and associates first asking if I had seen it. The more discerning then asked if it was real, but I was also asked how by some if they could get it for their spouse/child/friend of a friend etc and if it was available on the NHS! (For non UK-residents, basically asking if it was commonly available in hospitals).

This is a problem common across science and medicine in general of course — initial breakthroughs are often years away from commercial reality and widespread application. Humans are an impatient species, but they are also incredibly gifted and capable of amazing things. We just need to get the balance right and be honest in our approach providing appropriate context and managing expectations.