Is home 3D printing practical? Let's do the Time Warp again.

By Warren Volkmann, Editor
HP Developers' Portal

Every time I see an advertisement for a home 3D printer, it’s déjà vu all over again. I am mentally transported back in time to the dawn of the home computer era.

3D printers today are so geeky cool, just like home computers were back in the 1980s. What gadget junkie wouldn’t want one, right? The price of 3D printers is coming down fast. Some are selling for just $500. That’s on par with an Xbox with Kinect. Suddenly I can afford a home 3D printer.

The idea of a 3D printer in my family room sets me to bouncing in my chair. I pour over the reviews and ratings until I find the one I want. I drop it into my virtual shopping cart. I hover over the “checkout” button, but then I hesitate.

The “Practical Spouse Question” echoes in my mind:

“What useful things can you make with a home 3D printer today?”

Cool...yes. Practical...no. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Hmmmmm. Doll house furniture? Doll heads in different colors? Colorful plastic paper clips? A replacement for the long-lost battery cover on the TV remote? Or how about extra letter tiles for Scrabble? (Who couldn’t use an extra X, Q, and Z up their sleeve? Those three letters alone are worth 28 points.) 

Inevitably, I am forced to conclude that the answer to the Practical Spouse Question is:

“Not much.”

Dismayed, I abandon my cart and log off. Home 3D printing remains a tantalizing solution in search of a need.

Timewarped again

And that’s when it happens. I drop through a time warp that transports me back to 1981, the year I became a technology reporter right out of college. Home computers were just hitting the market. Atari was the undisputed leader with the Commodore 64 coming on strong. Texas Instruments borrowed Amway’s multi-level marketing business model and was selling its 99/4A out of garages. Radio Shack jumped in with the TRS-80 Model 100, the first affordable and widely available laptop. And IBM finally recognized the home market with its introduction of the PC Jr., complete with wireless keyboard.

As a tech reporter, I reviewed them all. And as every good journalist should, I hit the tech marketers with the Practical Spouse Question:

“What practical things can you do with a home computer today?”

I wanted them to have great answers. I really did. But for years the answer was always the same: “Play games…learn to program…balance your checkbook.”

I was forced to conclude that for home computers in the early ‘80s, the answer to the Practical Spouse Question was:

“Not much.”

Even the founders of Intel, the company that manufactured most of the microprocessors that drove the home computing revolution, couldn’t think of a home application.

In an interview on National Public Radio about the origins of the home computer, Intel’s Andy Grove said, “We were exposed to Apple’s early products, but I could not imagine anything but trivial applications, such as keep your recipes in the kitchen.”

Life gone digital

Intel's Andy Grove commissioned One Digital Day to capture the digital transformation.By the 1990s, the digital revolution was in full swing, yet most people remained unaware of the changes happening all around them. At Intel, Grove grew so frustrated by the public’s ignorance of the digital transformation that he commissioned a coffee-table book – One Digital Day – to give the world a big “heads up.” The book was compiled by the same team that published A Day in the Life of America.

Come to pass

Fast forward 25 years, and now we can’t imagine daily life without computers – not just at home and in our laps, but also in our pockets and purses. Digital devices have replaced the address book, phone book, check book, bank book, recipe book, map book and even book book.

The smart phone – the connected computer on your hip – has replaced the camera, camcorder, music player, video player, and answering machine. Gone is the analog watch on your wrist, the wind-up clock on the dresser, the hourglass timer in the kitchen, the family calendar on the wall, and the liquid thermometer on the porch. Broadcast radio is in decline, and even television – that most durable must-have home technology – is being edged out. (TV on the fritz? The kids will be fine as long as they can stream YouTube videos on their phones.)

So useful and practical are today’s personal, portable, connected digital devices that many teens would rather have a smart phone with a 10 gig data plan than a car. Even human memory seems to be becoming obsolete. Any kid with a smart phone can ace Trivial Pursuits.

And the digital revolution is picking up speed. It is moving to The Cloud, and it’s anyone’s guess what the Internet of Things will bring to the world.

In-home manufacturing

Which brings us back to home 3D printing – so full of promise and potential. Today 3D printers may be gee-whiz novelties, but they foretell the arrival of something almost inconceivable today: personal home manufacturing.

Face it – it makes no sense to ship a cell phone cover halfway around the world from a factory in China (as my daughter recently did). It was just a rubber case with a Minnie Mouse logo (probably pirated) on the back. Why not just download the case from The Cloud, personalize it your own favorite image, then 3D print it right at home?

Why drone deliver when you can 3D print?

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, set the tech world all abuzz with his 60-Minutes interview about drones delivering products to our doorsteps. Drone delivery is possible because the vast majority of Amazon’s shipments weigh less than five pounds – and much of that is packaging.

Instead of mass producing small consumer items in factories overseas, then wrapping them in cardboard and shipping them around the globe, why not just print them at home? Instead of adding the object of your desire to your virtual shopping cart, just add it to your print queue. Download the bits. Personalize the exterior. Hit print. Done.

How long will it take for manufacturing to come out of the factory and settle in next to the couch? How long until waiting for a package to land on your doorstep seems as quaint and old-fashioned as a plugging quarters into a payphone?

What do you think? What will home 3D printers be producing 15 years from now? What’s the answer to the Practical Spouse Question in 2040?