What Do We Need to Make 3D Printing More Available?

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When it was first introduced, 3D printing enthusiasts claimed that the technology was going to radically transform the way we live our lives. In some ways, it has—in fact, a team of engineers was recently able to 3D print an entire house in just 24 hours for the cost of roughly $10,000. But initial predictions that there would be a 3D printer in every home, and that consumers would soon be able to 3D print everything they need, from replacement parts for their vehicles to home furniture, was a little overhyped.

Currently, most 3D printing technology is in the hands of skilled professionals, industrial engineers, and highly dedicated hobbyists, but there are strong benefits to getting the technology in the hands of more people, including:

·         More innovation. One of the most popular applications of 3D printing is in prototyping and design, enabling more people to come up with inventions and ideas in a practical, cost-efficient way. With more 3D printers in more homes, we could instantly multiply our collective rate of innovation, sparking a surge of new entrepreneurship and breakthrough engineering.

·         Fewer expenses. There are a handful of different materials used by 3D printers, including PLA and ABS plastics, but none of them cost much more than a few cents per gram. When people have the ability to create their own materials, they can save money and create more wealth.

·         Compounding investment. With more people interested in 3D printing, more people will invest in 3D printing, eventually making the technology even cheaper and more readily available.

So what do we need to do to make 3D printing more available?

Modeling Software and Other Apps

First, we need to work on the apps and software available to make 3D printing easier. Printing the object you want to print isn’t as easy as loading the material and hitting the “print” button; you need to have a pre-existing model, either gathered from specs that you found online or based on a model you created yourself. Right now, there isn’t much support for creating your own models unless you’re already experienced in this area; however, there are some strong emerging contenders. Technology like PhotoModeler, for example, can automatically scan a real-world object and create a digital model that can be used to 3D print a near-exact replica. The easier we can make this process, especially to newcomers, the more people we’ll have interested in 3D printing.

Less Expensive Printers

Next, the price of the 3D printers themselves needs to come down. Large industrial 3D printers, which work efficiently, reliably, and with great precision, cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even smaller 3D printers cost several hundred dollars, sometimes up to several thousand dollars. However, there have been some significant price reductions in recent years, thanks to a diversity of different approaches to how to build a 3D printer. The Monoprice MP Select Mini, for example, can be yours for just under $200. As you might expect, lower price tags come with fewer features, and some inexpensive 3D printers require time and expertise to set up properly, so this remains a challenge that needs to be addressed.

Publicly Available Locations

Already, there are dozens of libraries across the United States that offer 3D printing to the public for only the cost of materials—which usually amounts to a few cents per gram. If more public locations invested in 3D printing technology, and did a better job about spreading the word of its existence, we wouldn’t need to have a “3D printer in every home” to ensure that everyone in America has access to 3D printing. Instead, we could pool our resources and collaborate using shared materials.

Better Overall Support

Finally, we could improve 3D printing availability by facilitating greater support for the 3D printing community. Many industry experts and enthusiasts participate in online forums and open-source libraries of 3D printable files, such as Pinshape, but knowledge of these resources is relatively limited, reserved for people who are already avid 3D printers. The community needs more teachers, more ambassadors, and more people willing to extend the barriers of that community. Collectively, if we can drive more interest in 3D printing, make the technology more affordable, and create and promote apps that make it easy to use, we can get 3D printing in the hands of far more users. The more people we have using 3D printing technology, the more society stands to benefit.

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