3D Printing Revolution: the Complex Reality

CNC & Machining


3D Thursday is a feature about CNC Machining, 3D Printing, 3D Scanning, and 3D design that appears in MAKE every Thursday. 


This miniature, high-precision assembly started with a CAD model and not much more. It cost about $10 to make it at home – with no 3D printer required.

In the past couple of years, the concept of low-cost 3D printing has captured the hearts and minds of millions of geeks. The allure of an upcoming manufacturing revolution has seeped into the mainstream, too: take The Economist, which ran about two dozen articles about this technology within the last year alone. Something must be in the air!

The charm of 3D printing is easy to understand, especially as it coincides with the renaissance of the DIY movement on the Internet. But all this positive buzz also has an interesting downside: it makes it easy to overlook that the most significant barriers to home manufacturing run very deep, and probably won’t be affected just by the arrival of a new generation of tools.

After all, affordable and hobbyist-friendly manufacturing tools that convert polygons into physical objects have been available for more than a decade. Take desktop CNC mills, for example: home- or office-friendly and costing about as much as a 3D printer, they have revolutionized the lives of many jewelers and dentists; they have shaken up quite a few other niche industries, too. But spare for a small community of hobbyists, these self-contained and tidy mills have not brought on-demand manufacturing into our garages or living rooms.


Roland MDX-15 – a desktop-sized, enclosed CNC mill popular with jewelers. This model debuted on the market around 12 years ago.

CNC mills and 3D printers are different in many ways, but they also have a lot in common; and looking at the parallels, it’s reasonable to suspect that the prospects of home manufacturing may have relatively little to do with the choice of a particular tool.

Design for Manufacturability

Anyone can download an open-source 3D renderer such as POV-Ray or Blender, and quickly learn to draw a sphere or a cube in 3D. But after the initial excitement wears off, we have to face the blues: most of us don’t have the skill or perseverance to make the next Avatar any time soon.

The same holds true for industrial design – for a couple of reasons:

  • CAD is genuinely difficult. Gaining proficiency in a CAD application is even harder than mastering a general-purpose 3D tool. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to simply get to the point where you can use a two-dimensional input device (and an equally two-dimensional screen) to accurately sketch any complex organic shapes or intricate mechanical assemblies.
  • There is a lot more to industrial design than meets the eye. Most of us, even if given a hypothetical 3D printer that makes flawless parts out of any metal of our choice, still wouldn’t be able to produce a working nail clipper or a soda can. Industrial designers spend years studying the design, potential uses, and practical trade-offs of anything from spur gears to hundreds of various types of linkages, hinges, joints, or cams. Heck, there are at least four sophisticated design decisions that went into making the lid for a box of Tic Tacs.
  • Mechanical engineering is a real science. Plastics and metals are fairly imperfect and finicky materials; they are not easy to turn into parts that are durable, practical, and aesthetic at the same time. Flat sheets of these materials are almost always disappointingly wobbly and easy to bend. Even items as trivial as phone cases and Lego bricks make use of carefully placed ribs, gussets, and bosses to prevent the parts from deforming or falling apart. The basic engineering principles take time to master and properly apply in your work.
  • Manufacturing processes are not perfect – and won’t be any time soon. Part design is greatly complicated by the need to account for manufacturing tolerances, material shrinkage, minimum feature size, the need to support the part through the process, and so on. Very few advanced designs can be quickly sketched and broadly disseminated without paying attention to these factors, and tailoring them both for the general manufacturing method, and for the specific copy of the machine used to make the part.


A very thin but high-rigidity base platform used in the project pictured earlier on. Note the use of reinforcing ribs.

The high profile of 3D printing means that a vast majority of people who buy low-cost ABS extruders in the heat of the moment won’t be aware how difficult it is to progress from ideas to viable parts. That may hurt the community in the long haul.

Of course, universal availability of design skills is not strictly a necessity: it may be possible to settle for a model where the select few experts publish their designs for free, and millions of other users simply click “print”. But this brings us to another issue…

Toward engineering-grade parts


A complete chassis for Omnibot mkII, made out of a high-strength engineering plastic, silicone rubber, and an assortment of metal parts.

The existing hobbyist-friendly additive prototyping methods tend to produce parts from a very narrow choice of materials, all of which exhibit fairly poor mechanical characteristics; there are no signs that this will change in the coming years. With CNC mills, the situation is much better – but some of the essential materials remain difficult or expensive to process (for example, most rubbers don’t machine particularly well).

In popular view, 3D printers are a tool that will enable us to directly make almost anything; this way of thinking is exemplified by the commercial arms race to deliver FDM machines that print in color. But this pursuit may be misguided: as it is, both 3D printing and CNC machining tends to be more useful for producing tooling patterns – that is, shapes that serve as an input to another, more specialized manufacturing process carried later on.

In the industrial world, CNC-machined patterns are used for thermoforming, metal stamping, injection molding, and several varieties of casting. Not all of these can be safely and cheaply attempted at home – but some are surprisingly easy to work with. For example, resin casting combines ease of use with extreme fidelity and a broad range of properties attainable for the final parts. Without any sophisticated equipment, you can make squishy rubbers in any color you please – and five minutes later, switch to a composite material reinforced with carbon fibers or glass.


A relatively simple, single-part mold for resin casting.

Of course, these manufacturing workflows can be mastered by any determined hobbyist. Nevertheless, they add another level of complexity that may be unexpected and insurmountable to many; the obsession with direct manufacturability does very little to help.

Where do we really stand?

I am excited about 3D printing, but also uneasy with our way of thinking about the future of home manufacturing. For the driven hobbyists, the printer is just another tool that allows them to bring their designs to life. It shares many of its problems with the approaches that existed before – and adds its own serious challenges to the mix. Perhaps the best we can do is to learn from the manufacturing industry, rather than proclaiming its untimely death.

In fact, the preoccupation with reinventing the manufacturing process may be causing us to root for the wrong solution to begin with: the now-popular ABS extruders may not be able to achieve a reasonable precision and produce consistent and predictable results simply due to the limitations of the material: its extremely gooey consistency and an ill-defined melting point makes it difficult to control its deposition. The high temperature gradients created in the process don’t work in favor of the technology, too.

Consequently, we are probably not giving enough attention to some of the alternatives that seem to be able to deliver. For example, the (still insanely expensive) wax deposition printers from Solidscape achieve amazing levels of detail simply by working with a more suitable substance, and by combining additive and subtractive steps. But subtractive processes are not sexy, and the output from these printers is a fragile material that works only as a casting mold. With no popular appeal, the odds of the prices coming down are pretty slim.

Stereolithography is another interesting choice with promising results: the existing high-accuracy $30,000 printers seem to be going toe-to-toe with low-cost devices such as the upcoming Form 1. But the messy and wasteful operating principle limits their pop appeal, too.

One day, a silver bullet solution may materialize; if it does, it will be probably nothing like any of the existing technologies we are experimenting with. Until then, it pays to focus on the process, not on this week’s most-hyped tool.


An assortment of CNC-machined, resin-cast parts.

If you’re involved in a particularly revolutionary or awesome project and would like to write about it for 3D Thursday, or you have a related product that you’d like us to review or write about, please contact Eric Weinhoffer at eric@makermedia.com. Thanks for reading!

98 thoughts on “3D Printing Revolution: the Complex Reality

  1. drestuff says:

    A rational voice on 3d printing!

  2. D says:

    What!?!? Don’t completely buy into the hype you say? Watch it you may end up being labeled a “3D printer denier”.

    In all seriousness I think there is a danger in how much 3D printers have been hyped for the home market. They still are not for the weak of heart and I certainly agree with your point that if they ever go mainstream the process will be dramatically different than today’s printers.

    Of course the future of 3D printing might be moot since ‘king of the patent trolls’ Nathan Myhrvold is doing his best to DRM printing designs. So much for innovation.

    1. Change says:

      Think technological singularity.

  3. Charles Haase says:

    This is a great post, and it encapsulates so many points! While I love sharing my enthusiasm for 3D printing, it is simply one method of Making, with its own quirks and drawbacks. I am always careful to point out that the source of the parts is typically external (Thingiverse – easy, but limited to what others post) or internal (your own CAD design, but do you know how to do that?). I am halfway through a career as a mechanical engineer, and it takes time to develop the combination of skills and knowledge that lead to good, functional parts. Thanks for saying this, and more, so eloquently.

  4. David Walker says:

    Speaking as someone who has gazed in awe at your projects many times, I think your viewpoint is well informed and very valuable. The whole of home 3d printing today reminds me of the home computing scene in the 80s with lots of innovation but with the devices themselves being, effectively, toys. I think the next steps will be incorporating multiple stages and techniques in one automatic device, and I find that prospect pretty exciting.

  5. Jack Van Gossen says:

    Excellent post! I think 3D printing’s biggest promise right now lies in what it can deliver in high-tech manufacturing with it’s ability to create forms that are not attainable by any other method. The “democratization of manufacturing” is underway regardless of what 3D printing brings to the table, though I think it will be some time (if ever) before we see a mini-factory in everyone’s kitchen. That will require extreme ease-of-use on par with modern PCs and mobile electronics (iMaker, anyone?). The hype may be overdone, but in the long run, I think it’s here to stay.

  6. andytanguay says:

    Wow, THANK YOU!

    It is really great to hear a rational voice to balance out the rather frothy exuberance that surrounds 3D printing. Make no mistake, it certainly is an exciting technology, and I do want to think we’re in the ‘Apple II’ years, and that the future holds 3D printers that produce quality, useful goods that compete with commercially produced items. But I have yet to see many examples of things that would make me begin to think we’re even close.

    Just to hear someone say ‘Hey, CAD is actually really hard’ is refreshing! That is no joke. If people learning vector art packages to feed laser cutters and Shopbots thought picking up that skill was difficult, wait til they get a taste of solving water tightness issues, and reducing polygon counts. Not to mention the engineering science that this article discusses.

    I absolutely love the Maker movement… it’s changed my life… but I will admit that I’ve been really puzzled by this subject over the years. Technologies like CNC-everything, laser cutters, cheap microcontrollers, Maker-spaces, systems on a chip… their usefulness has all been very apparent. But I’ve watched all the excitement around 3D printing and find myself looking around and thinking ‘I’m not sure I get this one.’

    Hopefully, some of the issues brought up in this article get rationally talked about in the larger picture. For instance, if CAD tools for the ‘everyman’ are designed to help guide the user through some of the pitfalls of mechanical engineering, the user would immediately have a leg up, or cheap FEA tools to ‘pretest’ parts would go a long way in helping a home/hobbyist maker design more structurally sound parts.

    We shall see.

    1. newframeworks says:

      The 3D modeling and design space is changing rapidly. Look at new tools like 123D.com from Autodesk or even whole new representations and startups that promise to change the design space like Uformia.com. 3D printing currently, in many ways, leads the 3D software tools. Software traditionally leads hardware – except at the start of the PC/digital revolution (early 80s). So here we are again. If anything 3DP’s most important contribution it to highlight just how lacking the design software is and drive design software innovation pushing it back into the lead.

  7. Scott Saunders says:

    Fantastic article. I often think the future of 3D printers will be similar to the present use of 2D printers, DVD burners and compilers. Probably, everyone reading this has all three available. But when was the last time you printed out some original artwork, or burned a DVD of your own videos, or wrote your own program to solve a problem? When was the last time your parents did that? There was no 2D printing “revolution” for most people. No DVD burning revolution. The technologies changed the world in many ways, and many people use them to wonderful things.

    Readers here are an exception, of course, but most people just don’t make things themselves, no matter what the technologies available are. It’s difficult and time consuming to create something from scratch, and very easy to buy something that someone else has already made.

    1. Andrew Hasara says:

      No, there was definitely a Desktop Publishing Revolution that happened, but it has already moved past the Printer and CD/DVD stage into eBooks and MP3’s and YouTube. It was a while back (it started in the 1980’s) so you may have missed it or just didn’t think of it that way while it was happening.
      However, there is a big jump for technology to go from current 3d printers and cnc’s to a real “Santa Claus Machine” or Star Trek style replicator that most people want. Software will change that and smaller, faster, cheaper, and lower power computing will make that possible. Right now, we have software that barely manages to mesh the know how of programmers and makers, and we need to integrate the know how of engineers and then designers. I expect the next leap to be either personal handheld 3d scanning (like a smart phone app that actually does scan accurately) or a camera that compares the build in progress to the 3d model to alert you when there are problems with the build.

  8. jerome w says:

    when a sculptor meets 3D printing: http://inmoov.blogspot.fr/
    I think this kind of great project would not exist without the hype on 3D printing

    1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      Wow, very cool! Thanks for sharing, Jerome.

    2. Michal Zalewski says:

      Neat! To be clear, I am simply amazed by the sheer number of great DIY projects I’ve seen on this blog, on Hack-a-Day, and elsewhere on the Internet. Many of these were enabled by devices such as plasma, laser, water, or hot wire cutters; FDM, SLS, or SLA 3D printers; and CNC mills.

      In the right hands, all these technologies can be wonderful tools!

  9. jobigoudgravatar says:

    I came to the conclusion that the most efficient investment at the moment for me was to learn and master CAD rather than approximately reproduce toys with a 3D printer.

    1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      That’s definitely a good plan. Free/cheap CAD tools are only getting better over time, so it’s getting easier and easier to learn…

    2. Jeffz says:

      I came to the same conclusion, I can have it printered at the local hackerspace or shapeways for cheap!

  10. rocketguy1701 says:

    Nice article. One thing I am looking forward to is the new 3d interface possibilities coming soon via hand tracking tech. Once someone can write a good modeling app that allows you to intuitively sculpt your form, with tools that also allow mathematical precision and manipulation (I’m thinking a cross between sculptris and openscad, although it’s not that simple of course), we could have a killer app to really increase the utility of 3D printing.

    Your points are well taken, I have a 3D printer and while I’m fairly technical I was amazed at how hard CAD is to deal with. It became the bottleneck for me instantly. The tools have archaic UI, or require such a steep learning curve that it’s obvious that there’s room for something grand and disruptive within that sphere.

    1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      I’m looking forward to playing with a Leap Motion. I haven’t seen any modeling projects with it yet, but it’s only a matter of time :)

  11. dwayne says:

    I happen to be a design engineer I do CAD every day it is a specialized skill set.

    Most people won’t model their own models. There are already places croping up with printer ready design libraries.

    Some very smart people will create parametric models that can be adjusted to many needs.

    The thing I’d like to see that isn’t practical yet is automated design analytics like stress and force tests that take someone like me and special FEA software to run.

    I suspect tools will take time.

    Making replacement parts seems like it could be quick easy and worth the cost.

    I know the article is ment to cut the hype.

  12. jucablues says:

    FYI, PovRay is not considered open source under OSI criteria. And it is not considered free software under FSF criteria.

    But there are rumours that PovRay’s next version (4.0) will be relicensed under the GPLv3+. If that happens, then it will fulfill both criteria.

  13. ftkalcevic says:

    What machine can make that robot for $10?

    1. Michal Zalewski says:

      This particular project is made on a CNC mill; the device itself costs $600+. The plastic itself is dirt cheap.

  14. imegopal says:

    what are those quadrature sensor are you using ?

    1. Michal Zalewski says:

      There’s a list of parts at http://lcamtuf.coredump.cx/omni2/

  15. hsczyrba says:

    I 100% agree with the author in all aspects of engineering and skill required in a manufacturing process. I do however think that the low end 3D printers we’re talking about are not about that realm. I do believe these are intended as rapid prototyping/learning devices for engineers to tinkerers inclusive. As an engineer, I love the way I can quickly change and reprint any aspect of my design. I love that I can get my ideas in line before heading to the expensive Pro’s to finalize my work. In watching my kids, learning new tools and design rules, and just generally playing, discovering the limits of what they are dreaming up, there is no teacher or text book that can cover these aspects of self discovery that this technology gives us. I do believe that this is its place.

  16. Helios Labs (@HeliosLabs) says:

    I think one could have made a similar argument in the 80’s and 90’s about PC’s. But things changed, and they will change with 3D printing and computer controlled manufacturing in general.

    The article points out the problems that exist now, and the barriers that are in front of us.

    Don’t take that as an excuse to temper your enthusiasm – it just means in addition to what we are already doing, we should probably do something about making industrial design more accessible to the average person – as well as continuously improving the capabilities of 3D printers.

    Hackerspaces are going to play a key role in this. They are a place where you can take a course in industrial design, CAD, SketchUp + 3D printing without having to take out a loan for a university degree or study peripheral courses in calculus (unless you wanted to). You’ll also get hands on experience and have competent people around you to help you out. I’d like to see online opencourseware-style tutorials on things like the design process — and in fact, I’m slowly but surely working on putting together some resources to share myself.

    I think in the very near future, the language and processes of design will be as necessary as reading, writing, and computer literacy are today.

    Barriers can be challenges that help us grow faster and more efficiently, or they can be simply barriers – but that isn’t something the current state of 3D printing decides, that is something our current state of mind will decide.

  17. jwatte says:

    We have not yet come to the Trough of disillusionment, that is true.
    It will get worse before or gets better.
    But not everybody needs to be a CAD Jockey. 3d designs are easily shared.
    And more interesting (from a societal impact point of view) is the observation that a 3d scanner is to 3d printing what a cd ripper was to mp3.
    I predict the copyright shenanigans of the mpaa and riaa are just a precursor to what we’ll see from GE and Fischer-Price.

  18. makeuser says:

    video please

  19. neil says:

    Terrible article.

    i. “CAD is genuinely difficult.”

    Sure. But people with printers don’t design their fonts. Same will go here. 95 percent of users will be printing stuff they didn’t design (bought/torrented from a designer).

    ii. “There is a lot more to industrial design than meets the eye.”

    No shit. Won’t stop people though. Look at all the terrible Myspace rappers that the “democratization” of home recording brought. A lot of crap will be around. But from here will come the next Eddison/Ford/Telsa/Musk etc.

    iii. “Mechanical engineering is a real science”

    So what? It’s specialized knowledge now, but won’t be in the future. People gravitate toward where there’s an incentive to acquire knowledge.

    iv. “Manufacturing processes are not perfect – and won’t be any time soon”.

    Most of us can’t cook delicate pastry for shit, but we still make the best of it. Meanwhile excel. There’s a middle ground to be found.

    This is what’s wrong with your whole mentality. It’s so fucking old school. You’re coming at from the manfacturing establishment standards. It just won’t be like this. Look at recording studios 40 years ago – producers and engineers were still wearing labcoats.

    1. Michal Zalewski says:

      The argument here isn’t that the technology is worthless, that progress won’t happen, or that it won’t happen with the aid of the hobbyist community; quite the opposite.

  20. Eddie Edwards says:

    The comparison with the Apple II is telling. Back then, programmers of mainframes were probably saying the same thing as this guy. There’s only 100 of us in the world, and we have $100,000s of training invested in each of us. How are you going to learn the techniques we used to write IBM DB2 in your bedroom, kid?

    And yet, by trial and error, study, and hard work, those kids grew up to create Linux and MySQL.

    The landscape changed. The old programmers used to draw flowcharts and write code and it had to pretty much work, because machine time was expensive. They would not even type it in themselves, because they were too valuable to do mundane things like typing.

    The new programmers just sat down at the machine and played and, through trial and error, they gained an empirical understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Flowcharts? LOL! They had an opportunity the old guys never had – the opportunity to fail, completely, and at low cost. Their time was cheap and their materials were cheap, and the consequences of failure were small. If their code crashed, maybe their brother lost a bit of homework. No one lost their job over it.

    With industrial design today, of course it’s “hard”. It has to be hard. Mistakes are incredibly expensive. You don’t make a stainless steel tool for a 10,000 parts/hour injection machine just to see what happens. You need some guy that knows *exactly* where to put a flange, first time, no mistakes. And if he can’t figure it out, you give him expensive and hard-to-use software to make sure there are no mistakes, and you pay him to learn it and to use it. Hell, you certainly don’t want a part that *seems* to work, but then causes a thousand deaths.

    But then circumstances arise so a kid can come home from school and tweak a design he’s playing with, to include some ideas he had while daydreaming in Geography. He can print it out for 50 cents, and then see if it works, and if it doesn’t he can try something else tomorrow. He can put the design into active service, and if it breaks catastrophically, maybe his sister gets a cut finger. No one is sued and no downtime is lost on million-dollar machines. Sure, he’s not really competing with what the old guy is doing. Not yet, anyway.

    By the time he hits college that kid knows as much about ABS’s strengths and weaknesses as anyone in the world, and he probably has a few tricks of his own that wouldn’t even have occurred to the other guys. And not only will he deeply understand the problems with the output of cheap 3D printers, he’ll have techniques to go around them.

    Give him the formal education now, and he’ll eat the old guy’s lunch. If he doesn’t decide to eat the old guy’s employers’ lunch instead.

    Stick with ABS deposition, kid, not despite its flaws but because of its flaws. Sure, *today* people still make molds and there are all kinds of manufacturing techniques for mass production that aren’t 3D printing, and they can be fun hobbies too. But in 1988 people were still using mainframes built in the 1960s. If 3D printing takes off there might not even *be* mass production any more. And if you can master the worst incarnation of 3D printing that history will ever see, you’ve got it made.

  21. Ted Hall, ShopBot Tools says:

    100kGarages.com is an attempt to help encourage that middle ground. Manufacturing or micro-manufacturing of real stuff, or doing professional custom making, is going to involve a little more than just click-to-print; and real production may not be for the living room but for the garage or small shop; and this making might need more than 1 person in the shop or involve collaborations across the web — 100kGarages tries to provide resources, community, and collaboration networks for people wanting to get stuff made and people or small businesses who fab or design. And emphatically yes, there really is a new competitive leverage for small manufacturing, whether it be targeted to local, distributed, micro-, or long-tail global markets. The new competitive opportunities are based on the amazing capabilities of the increasingly affordable digital fab equipment (all types, additive and subtractive) and the reach of the internet which is empowering small manufacturing entrepreneurs in the same way that it has enabled publishing, entertainment, and communications revolutions. Entrepreneurail enthusiasm along with the agility of small enterprise is going to help small-scale digital-fab manufacturing kick in … and as Chris Anderson points out in “Makers:”, when this type of democratization hits manufacturing, it is going to be a really big deal.

  22. jtizzle says:

    I am a CAD teacher that uses a 3D printer in my class. The BIG future in 3D printing will not be in home use, but rather in the manufacturing sector and health industry. It will have big implications on that. They are already starting to print with metal, glass, sand, clay, etc. If you understand the manufacturing process. You will get home much of an impact this will have on how things are made. Look at this blog site http://www.3dprinter.net/.

  23. 4ndy says:

    As an engineer just starting to write an article on this exact subject, I greatly appreciated reading your viewpoint.
    My biggest gripe here is your repeated reference to extruding ABS. While I agree that a lot of people will do that because it is cheap at present, it would have been nice if you had mentioned the possibility for people to print parts in PLA and use them to sand-cast a more resilient aluminium component, which you can technically do with a furnace built out of mud, sawdust and a hair-dryer if you don’t need one on a permanent basis.
    Overall though, you were very fair in this article, and I suppose any more encouragement for people to play with hot things without thoroughly researching it first could be unwise :P

    I am still betting on PLA to end up cheaper than ABS in my lifetime (just like solar power has now become cheaper than nuclear) as this society gradually runs out of mineral oil and ends up being forced to make most of our plastics out of renewable resources such as sugar (we can also make PE that way though, so that might still be cheaper, even if it’s near-useless for FDM/FFF).

    1. 4ndy says:

      The aforementioned article is now up, and adds to this conversation by examining some crucial economic problems that were not discussed here. http://blog.thezeitgeistmovement.com/blog/4ndy/evolution-3d-printing

  24. Arnie says:

    So the big difference between cheap home 3d printing and home CNC.

    1. Software.

    CNC software, when you have no money, is very difficult to use. Much harder than just making a 3d model. Printing a 3d design is actually getting way easier.

    2. Realities of machining metal part without much experience- All cnc mills are different in capability, speed, and work envelope this is a problem; also cnc needs lots of accessories to make it work worth a dang. Just clamping a work piece correctly is difficult. Speeds for cutting tools, coolant (or none) are complex and varied. Every metal is different, as well as cutting tools.

    3. Cutting tools, accessories and the like add a substantial about of money to the whole project for CNC. All you need to print a model is filament.

    I know about cnc firsthand, as I have a small mill that I converted to cnc, I am also building a 3d printer as well.

    The whole point is that ALL manufacturing tools are getting into the price range that a person or small group can afford. 3d printers are just one tool among many. Laser cutters can be had for around the same amount as a small cnc mill, once you account for all the secondary costs for cnc. Anyone who wants to build things is going to be able to afford tools that the “big guys” have only had in the past. The other part of the whole maker movement is the sharing of ideas, plans, software, parts and the like. Companies hate to share anything. People like to share. How fast would technology advance if companies openly shared designs, rather than keeping them secret?

    3d printing is an important facet of the whole thing, but its not the only part. There is a revolution coming that isn’t just 3d printing, it is the democratizing of building, learning, and sharing. It’s not the only one coming either.

    Biotech clubs? Free Software? Robots for small business? Gene therapy? Quantum Computing? Molecular Self Assembly? Free knowledge?

    Kinda hard to predict what direction is will go, really.

    1. Michal Zalewski says:

      CNC and 3D printing are obviously different, but I think the former is demonized because people have experience with working in metals or other demanding materials, where there is indeed very little room for error, and topics such as tooling & workholding become a major issue.

      On the flip side, FDM 3D printing is idealized as some sort of a point-and-click endeavor, but it isn’t and probably won’t be soon; there are tons of constraints (particularly with ABS) and a lot of tweaking and postprocessing involved. SLS and SLA are a lot more point-and-click in terms of the printing process, but are messy; and FDM using materials such as wax or PLA works better, but doesn’t produce durable parts.

      That said, I agree that the hobbyist landscape is changing in fascinating ways, and I’m very excited about that; in fact, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a sub-$5k SLA printer one day. I only have reservations about the concept of 3D printers in every kitchen replacing industrial manufacturing. It’s possible that we will get there within our lifetime – but we are very, very far away from even discovering the technologies that would enable anything of this sort; and if we discover them, they probably won’t be about squirting out molten ABS :-)

  25. t-bird says:

    Great article. I’m looking into a MakiBox, but I don’t expect to make great, solid things, I just want to use it to make models I can put in my hands. So, eyes wide open.

    For CNC you need extraordinary software. You just need a solid for 3-d printing.

    1. Michal Zalewski says:

      You need software for both :-) In both cases, the software takes the geometry, slices it, and converts it into G-code toolpaths. The differences aren’t that big, except that “proper” CNC software tends to be more arcane by the virtue of trying to accommodate a variety of cutting strategies, region selection methods, materials, and so on.

  26. shopbottools says:

    The new, free, design-to-fab web software, called “123D” (from Autodesk) is a resources for makers for going directly from the design process to a digital fabrication tool. You can design and send your output to a fab service, or to a 3D printer, a laser cutter, or a CNC tool (Fab Utility). The latter only supports a subset of project types at the moment, but the 123D undertaking in general is an attempt to make it equally easy to get from a design to output on a range of digital fab equipment.

  27. Chris Gammell (@Chris_Gammell) says:

    Hi Michael,

    Great article! And your CNC milling guide was what ultimately convinced me to try machining instead of a getting 3D printer. I’m still getting started but I really appreciate your measured input.

    After reading some of the other comments (some of which were unnecessarily nasty), I think I’d be keen to point out that it’s not a zero sum game. Even if/when 3D printing “takes over”, there are just going to be some things that are done better by non 3D printing methods. When they start 3D printing reliable steel, sign me up! Until then, I’ll realize the limitations and cost of each method and take each for what it is.

    It’s reminiscent of the analog/digital divide in electronics (my main field); sure, digital is much bigger these days and will be into the future. That “revolution” was well known. But analog continues to thrive and has become even MORE important in some areas because of what can be done with it where digital cannot efficiently and cost effectively work. I see many of the same parallels developing here.

    Thanks again for writing this and your other guides!


  28. Digits2Widgets says:

    Most refreshing!!! I posted a rather more intemperate rant yesterday:



  29. John Conti says:

    I think this article offers valuable perspective. It is also nice that it suggests that home based business can manufacture now, without 3D printing or CNC machining capabilities. Still, in the long run, new tools will create new processes. And that might be refreshing for our tired product markets.
    Many industrial designers optimize not just for manufacturablity, but also spend ridiculous amounts of time reducing costs. By fractions of pennies sometimes. The idea is that this adds to profits when items are made in the millions. This least common denominator design has infected our markets with things not worth owning. Empowering users as designers may bring a quality and utility to our design processes that “designed in the US and made offshore” seems often unable to produce.

  30. Prasanna Karmarkar says:

    Yeah, the (lack of) mechanical strength of materials that can be used in additive prototyping always bothered me. But at the back of my mind. Great job in bringing that to the fore, keeping it real for 3D printing everywhere. Way to go!

  31. Marcus Barber (@rightfuture) says:

    In the 2004 TV series ‘Futures Matters’ produced by the National Geographic Channel, Rapid Prototyping was featured as one of their stories. Whilst I agree entirely with your assessment regarding the difficulty of mastering CAD design, the Futurist and co-presenter on the show explained the likely go to market model as somewhat different from what you’re suggesting.

    Rather than developing their own skills in 3D rendering of products, the person at home would simply log onto a ‘retail’ store, choose and pay for the product they want to manufacture at home, and it would be downloaded directly into their 3D printer.

    They requirement for CAD/design expertise is NOT a barrier for the likely business model as the majority of people will have NO interest in becoming designers themselves. What they want is a fast and arguably cheaper way of accessing the products they want.

    This places the expertise of designers at the forefront of the new retail model, as opposed to being the back end. Good designers will be able to pen their own online store fronts. Manufacturers will move away from needing to make their own products to specialising in designing product designs that anyone at home could print out.

    Think of the App stores targeting different apple/android/… versions and expect to see the same offerings across the variety of ‘make at home’ machinery.

    The expertise of CAD et al is going to increase, but the average shopper won’t need it themselves

  32. Andrew Eydt (@Producracy) says:

    The availability of cheap 3D printers won’t make everyone with access a talented mechanical design engineer. However, this will allow people to learn empirically ‘by doing’.

    3D modelling isn’t terribly hard to get started in – but the final refinement is.
    So people will likely send models out for tweaking.
    Also, after printing a component and noticing that it’s flimsy, weak, or brittle, they will tweak the design and reprint. Pragmatism goes a long way in real life.

    -Andrew, producracy.com

  33. lagarfio says:

    As a graphic design and metals student I do not agree at all. Low cost 3d printers can help people develop a variety of skills either if you are going to college to get them or just as a hobby, but the mastering of the 3d modeling is not for everyone and if it reaches a mainstream state is going to be among the people who are interested in truly using this technologie (artist, designers, engeniers, architects etc). Not everyone is going to have a 3d printer and not everyone that does have it is going to use it “properly” like with computers some people use them for facebook and reddit some people use them to analyze chemical reactions, its going to be the same with the 3d printers some people is going to print action figures and some people is going to print prototypes for prosthetics . I am not trying to insult or diminish your point of view I just think its a little to narrow one should be open to the possibilities of this “new” and great technology

  34. Penny Brown says:

    If 3D printing indeed does become more democratised, then the interfaces and software will become more friendly to the naive users. In case it does become a mass-production good, it’s feasible to believe it will revolutionise the retail and consequently all the industries. For example – the idea of buying prints and making your own products – it cuts out an important segment of logistics industry’s market. The other interesting point comes from sustainability and environmental protection. People would be much more prone to recycling, if, for example the recycled materials could be used as raw materials for the prints. Not to mention the possibility of reducing consumerism. The ability to print a broken part would allow us to prolong the lives of our appliances, which would help preserve the nature, and boost innovation, because new products on the market would have to bring significant added value, so people would actually be enticed to replace their old repaired appliances. Based on this, generic products production might significantly decrease. Interesting future awaits us, indeed.

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Security engineer by day, a maker of tiny plastic gears by night.

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