Down The Hype Cycle: A 3D Printer In Every Home?

When he famously said “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” in 1977, Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, certainly wasn’t expecting a reality like the one we live in today.

In less than half a century, computers don’t just exist in multiple rooms of our homes, they’ve taken over our pockets, our wrists and are embedded in a multitude of products around us, including light bulbs and basketballs. Needless to say, there are now plenty of reasons why anybody would want a computer in their home.

Although Olson’s might have been one of the worst tech predictions of all time, variations of the same question continue to be asked with seemingly every new major technological advancement — particularly, is there a need for a 3D printer in every home?

The ability to design and manufacture a physical object at home within hours, while bypassing traditional manufacturing supply chains, is certainly a powerful notion. After all, what if replacing a $125 dishwasher part took literally minutes and $5 of 3D printing material, rather than a few weeks and a lengthy phone call with a customer service representative? But then again, how many dishwasher parts does one have that need replacing on a regular basis?

Applications as the limiting factor

Despite all of its possibilities, hitting “print” on a 3D printer is a lot more involved than just loading the paper tray and hitting a green button. Preparing and finishing a 3D printed object can be an arduous process.

For those who regularly use a 3D printer and take the process in stride, these are usually small issues. But for those who aren’t ready to take on the challenge, it can make an otherwise pleasurable experience turn sour, fast. In short, “ease of use” is still a thing.

In addition to the operational difficulties involved with owning and maintaining a 3D printer, there are still too few 3D printing applications for the average person to justify the cost of purchasing a $1,000-$4,000 machine. Unless you’re already using a 3D printer in your line of work or hobby, or regularly spend thousands of dollars a year on small plastic parts, the time and costs involved with 3D printer ownership are just not worth it.

It’s the range of applications that’s really the only fundamental limit to the current adoption rate for 3D printing.

Having access to a 3D printer is certainly ideal for those in creative and engineering fields who wish to envision their ideas, thoughts and “prototypes” physically.

This is why most 3D printed objects exist today; as a tool for design thinking and iteration. As we continue to move toward a future that’s becoming increasingly dependent on STEM skill sets, access to a 3D printer has also become an invaluable tool for students learning the foundations of science, technology, engineering and math.

Still, even some of the most frequent users of 3D printing have turned to 3D printing services that are increasingly making ownership unattractive. After all, why commit to a large purchase and add clutter when you can have the final product delivered to you without the hassle of ownership and maintenance?

To be fair, though, although price and ease of use are indeed things to consider, 3D printers will become more easy to use and cheaper every year. It’s the range of applications that’s really the only fundamental limit to the current adoption rate for 3D printing.

Unlike personal computers, which can take on a countless number of tasks within the home, 3D printers are limited to one thing: creating physical objects from digital files. When looking back at Olson’s 1977 prediction and comparing it to the role of 3D printing in the home today, it becomes clearer why he might have thought the way he did — there just were not enough applications to justify owning a personal computer.

If 3D printers are to be taken more seriously as a universal home appliance, they need to provide more solutions that are valuable for every home. Personal computers have evolved to have this level of value, but a machine that can produce the occasional spare part or small product from plastic does not.

Looking forward

When thinking about the amount of home applications potentially possible for home 3D printing, it’s not hard to see an exciting future ahead. Among other developments, the addition of more advanced materials will enable users to produce a variety of functional objects on demand — such as the ability to print electronics and sensors directly within a 3D print, like the Voxel8 printer, for example, hitting the market this year.

Similarly, developments in 3D printing glass, ceramics and even metals will greatly expand upon the potential for applications in the home.

A clear example of how the role of 3D printers in the home could affect our day-to-day lives is the ability to print everyday objects on demand. Take a commonly used home object that is owned purely for its functional benefits, like a kitchen knife. We own this knife to access its functional benefits at any given time, for example, when we have dinner. We don’t necessarily want to own the knife, we want access to the ability to cut something.

Using a, currently imaginary, 3D printer that could print (and dispose) a functional knife on demand, we would never need to own such a knife again. We simply print it when needed and dispose of it when done. Ultimately, this is where the true digitalization of products comes into view, a powerful notion that has the potential to redefine materialism altogether. We may not be there yet, but seeing its potential, it becomes easier to imagine the role of a 3D printer in every home.

Similar reasoning holds true for 3D printed edibles. We’re already living a future consisting of smartwatches that can track our vitals. Sending that data to a food-based 3D printer would allow the machine to prepare the optimal meal or nutritional supplements for each individual throughout the day. Who wouldn’t want to replace the microwave in their kitchen with a new appliance that was capable of producing meals near-instantly, personally compiled from fresh ingredients?

Looking forward, the potential of home 3D printing is tremendous, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s to come. With this in mind, the methods for moving forward — like the evolution of computers — are still fuzzy and unclear. Looking at the current state of technology, I do not foresee the need for a 3D printer in every home at this time, or even in the near future. The big question is, will I be as wrong as Mr. Olson was?