What you need to know about 3D printers for today and tomorrow

Beyond the hype, there are real uses for this technology, but also some key barriers yet to be addressed

Consumer technologies seem to have invaded business a lot in the last few years: mobile devices, cloud services, social networking, and so on. You can soon add another one to the mix: 3D printing. But 3D printing is not just a consumer technology -- it's also an industrial technology. What's really happening is that the ability to create objects via printers is getting to consumer-level prices, meaning it will be affordable for individuals and businesses alike to use more broadly.

Because the technology is coming from two very different markets, you can expect to see real differences in 3D printers -- and ways you might use them.

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3D printing today
The consumer version of 3D printing is, at least today, meant for hobbyists. The broadest current use case is to create figurines and other tchotchkes. Think of them as custom version of those plastic GI Joe game pieces you played with as a kid, replicating you, your dog, your kid, your spouse, Mr. Spock, Angelina Jolie, or some other person. There are services that will scan you, then print out a figurine based on that scan.

3D printing works by depositing layers of a material -- usually a form of plastic -- to build up a shape. In mass production, you'd use a mold and pour the material into it, let it cool, and sand off the rough edges. With 3D printing, that layer buildup accomplishes the same result as the mold. It's much, much slower, but it's fully customized.

People in the Maker movement are prime candidates for 3D printing as well: Instead of carving a block of material into a shape, you can print it instead.

But this form of 3D printing has two major limitations today. One is that the resulting objects have little tensile strength and little temperature tolerance. They're fine for figurines and other objets d'art, but they're not able to handle the stress of holding up a load or of other pressures, nor do they maintain their shape in heat or stay intact in extreme cold.

If you've ever had a deck made of synthetic lumber, you know you have a real wood frame and real wood posts under the synthetic surface because the fibers in real wood can bear more weight (that's called tensile strength) than the amalgam in the synthetic boards. The materials used in 3D printers also lack such fibers that provide strength to objects. Even if they had such fibers, because each deposited layer is so thin, there's no fiber run long enough to provide tensile strength; that's why paper towels, which have been mashed up and had their wood fibers broken apart, aren't as strong as as a piece of wood. 

These issues also affect industrial 3D printing, whose history comes from two sources, both of which involving removing materials to create an object, as opposed to the 3D printing notion of adding materials to create it. One is photolithography, the process used to create computer chips. In that process, a block of layered silicon is etched to expose the desired circuits. The other is numeric control (NC) routing, which is a fancy term for automated lathes and other cutters. An NC router carves out the block of aluminum that becomes the chassis for a MacBook Air, the granite countertop for a kitchen, or the wood for a desktop.

Using a 3D printer would allow a single piece of equipment to create a wider variety of items, as well as reduce the wastage from cutting and etching.

Some people foresee 3D printing enabling the printing of custom or out-of-production parts as needed; workers in oil rigs, space stations, and rural farms would enthusiastically welcome this development. But the lack of tensile strength means the parts that could actually be used in production become quite limited. You could probably print a plastic gear that would last, as long as the temperature remained moderate and the gear wasn't being warped by other forces. But forget about a gear or fastener subject to strong forces or high temperatures, such as in an engine. Aside from temporary fixes, don't expect to create new parts for your tractor, car, furnace, or derby.

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