Slate has a little article that, in my view, buries the lede. Seth Stevenson tries out a 3D printer and spends the first half of the article complaining about how difficult it is to set up and use the printer. Which, well, fair enough, but that’s the kind of thing that would rapidly get better if the mass market adopted the printer. There are no fundamental technical challenges there.
The second half of the article is the key point: Stevenson can’t think of what the hell he’d want to 3D print. Neither can I, and I’ve been racking my brain for five years at this point. Even if I had a sci-fi future version of a 3D printer that could, say, print in metals and integrate simple electronics into the finished model, I’m still not sure I’d use a hypothetical, free 3D printer more than once a year. It would occasionally be nice to print a particular tool (I’ve been wanting to unscrew some unusual screws for a while now, and if a 3D printer could print a functional screwdriver for me (current models can’t), I’d use that). I might see some use in it during Hallowe’en. But it’s pretty damning to a consumer product to not be able to think of much of a use for potential future crazy versions of that product.
This is because 3D printing should not be thought of as a consumer product. It’s fundamentally an industrial product, albeit one that can potentially enable smaller industry. The micro-manufacturing community should quit their misguided quest for a 3D printer in every home, and think more about a professional-quality model that would enable small businesses who were willing to invest some reasonable amount of time and money into manufacturing, create really good products. Note that this pushes 3D printing in a different direction: forget trying to get the price below $5,000. Forget making it simple enough for Joe Average to figure out. Look in the direction of producing better output for people willing to spend $10,000 and investing 10 hours a week into your product. Make that.