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September 26, 2016 46 mins

Has the 3D printer craze fizzled out? What are the trends in consumer 3D printers? Is this technology doomed to obscolescence?

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to
Forward Thinking. Hey there, and welcome to Forward Thinking, the
podcast that looks at the future and says something like
a recipe bits and pieces and bits and pieces. And

I'm Jonathan Stupor Stricklin, and I'm Lauren Vogelbaum, and I'm
Joe McCormick. And hey, guys, I have a question for you. Yeah,
do y'all remember the fact that we have a three
D printer in the office. I do sometimes look at
it and think what an expensive paperweight. I was going
to make the exact same joke. Where is it now?

It's around the corner somewhere, isn't it if Yeah, it's
near the conference rooms. Yeah, it's over by where our
our our dear friend and co worker Robert Lamb hides
out from the rest of us, and he's in the office.
Does he actually hide over there? Is that where he is? Huh?
That's his spy cave, thybe, I shouldn't have revealed. Just

move his desk over there. I mean, he's got a
lot of stuff. So okay, alright, So so we've got
the the forbidden zone in which Robert Lamb and the
three D printer have some sort of uneasy truce. Well,
I just wanted to highlight the fact that when we
very first got our our three D printer, um that

was it was. It was through some work relationships. Uh,
and we we don't want to come off as ungrateful
like that was a cool thing, but at the very
first we were we were trying to figure out, Okay,
let's figure out how to use this thing, you know, yeah,
three D printer, Gonna do some stuff with it. And
I was doing a lot of stuff with it. I
installed software on my computer and I was making you know,

designs and what is he you know, CAD design, the
computer assisted design, and and it was fun for a
while until man, it was just really really hard to
get that thing to work. It was a lot of
work to use the three D printer, I mean it

and like most jobs, failed at some point along the line,
failed really spectacularly, and like the machine or the software
didn't have any way of knowing when it had failed,
so it would just continue to fail more and more
hilariously until you had something like John Carpenter's the Thing
in place of whatever it was trying to plastic hairball. Yeah,

well and I mean and and the reason for this
is that it was it was a relatively inexpensive unit
that was meant for home hobbyists. And yeah it wasn't.
So it wasn't. I mean, so you know, like like
the all of the parts were not like like finely
tuned for the best possible use. And their software was

all software that you had to go find. It didn't
necessarily come with the machine. Well, one piece of software
came with it, others did not. And also just the
fact that different factors can change the the the elements
of the plastic that you're using. Right, So for example,
if you've got a lot more humidity or the temperature

is different in the place where you are producing things,
it may mean that you have to make some adjustments
to Like the way a three D printer typically works.
The basic three D printers is it lays down a
thin layer of plastic on a heated um platform, and
the platform is heated in order to make sure that
the plastic doesn't doesn't cool too quickly, stays tacky enough

to accept another layer of plastic on top of it, right,
And you do layer by layer by layer until the
object you want to create has been made. And if
you're talking about larger three D printers, they might even
have a heated chamber in order to keep a an
object from collapsing in on itself, for um, making sure
it maintains its structural integrity as you go through the

print job. But there are a lot of things that
could go wrong. I mean, if the plastic is not
extruding at the proper rate, that's a problem. If the
print head drags across any layer of plastic, it could
completely dislodge it. Yeah, yeah, if any part yeah right right,
if it if it scratches it in any way and
creates an uneven surface for printing. Yeah, yeah, because it's

just following directions, like, it's following a series of movements
that it thinks it needs to do to complete a
print job. Three D printers are not aware, generally speaking,
of how a print job is going, so if something
does go wrong, it just keeps on going wronger um.
And then can be very funny. It could be funny,
but it can also be very frustrating if you're trying

to print something for a specific purpose. Yeah, so today,
if you can't tell already, we're going to be doing
a three D printing update. We've done episodes on three
D printing before. We did one in October three D
Printing in Medicine, and one in August the Art of
three D Printing. I think it was all about art,

wasn't Yeah, that was about replicating works of art and
also creating new works of art with three D printing.
We did one about three D printing in construction, I believe, yeah,
in May, often called print Your Dream Home. And then
our fourth ever episode that we ever did was called
three D Printer Jam When tables are intellectual property? Um. Yeah,

that's from March, and those those are the episodes we've
done that are entirely about three D printing. Of course,
we've mentioned it like a lot of times if you
listen to the podcast, um as an element of technology
that researchers have been using and creating whatever it is
that they're creating exactly. And so today we're really focusing

primarily on consumer three D printers, stuff that would be
in private hands maybe for some small businesses, but additive
manufacturing is clearly very important in lots of in industries.
It's used in R and D and production on a
professional level more than ever before. Like it's three D
printing is enormous in various industries. It's great for prototyping.

In fact, that's the primary use for three D printers today.
Or yes, yeah, that that is on the cusp of changing,
but it is. It has for the longest time been
the main use for any three D printer. The idea
was that you would come up with a design for
a product, maybe a change in a product line. You
could then use a three D printer to build a

model of it and see if it would actually work
in the real world, because sometimes a design that works
on paper is not practical, and you could do it quickly,
so if it didn't work, you go back to the
drawing board, makes some changes, print those out and try that.
And it speeds up the prototyping process by several factors.

And also because it's additive rather than subtractive, it's less
wasteful than other method. It's a prototyping so we've talked
all about that extensively. And of course, though I wonder
if the wastefulness thing will will be challenged by the
fact that you have to create like four failed attempts
at something before it actually takes. I think it depends
upon the printer. To some printers maybe uh less prone

to print failures than others. Oh, I know that. I
just mean, if you've got one of these that I
still think it's probably faster than than like carving away
at some material so that you finally get it whatever
it is you were you were aiming for, depending upon
the how you're carving. I mean, if you have a
robot arm doing it. Maybe. Yeah. I was about to say,

like I am not personally a master whittler. No, I
I've been known to whittle, but I mostly little toothpicks,
depending I'm aiming for, like a spoon, but it never
I never get there, so toothpick it is. I figure,
you know, you just say, whatever you end up with,
that's what you were uting for, and then it's a

success every time. Um. But we were also seeing the
potential for using three D printers in areas like in
space exploration. There have been a lot of recent experiments
NASA has done several about how how can we do
three D printing in a micro gravity environment where including
three D printing of food yep, yep so, and that

introduces challenges that you know you're on Earth, we just
don't think about because we can rely on gravity to
be a component of a three D printer and hold
stuff in place. But up in space that's not necessarily
a luxury that you have at your disposal. UM. But
on that consumer side, we really want to look at

what's going on, because when we started this podcast a
few years ago, uh, three D printing was one of
those buzz words that was really really starting to hit
UM full speed, because I can tell you the first
year I went to CE which was two thousand and eight,
was the first time I had ever seen a three
D printer in person. I saw a maker bought three

D printer. UH. My UM co host of Tech Stuff
at the time, Chris Pallette was with me, and he
flipped out when he saw it. He knew immediately what
it was he was looking at, whereas I did not.
I had never encountered the three D printer before, and
when I found out, I was like, Wow, that's a
really cool idea. And obviously those had been used in

various industrial purposes for a while, but it had really
just started to dawn in the consumer realm, right It
just started to show up By two thousand thirteen, when
we were really getting started with this show, uh, that
it had gone beyond just hobbyists, like a very small

group of hobbyists who were aware of it, and it
entered into the general public consciousness. And that's really when
things took off, and we wanted to kind of take
bearings of where we are now based upon are compared
to where we were then, right, And it's it's not
it's not like the graph just goes up and up

and up into the right. No, I mean I remember
what things were like back when we started this show
in Yeah, So essentially, I guess the question I want
to ask today is is three D printing another example
of a bursting or recently burst tech enthusiasm bubble, kind

of like you you might think of virtual reality in
the nineties, not where the technology is you know, never
going anywhere, but at least for a while, it has
seriously squandered its public interest capital, right, because back in
two thousand thirteen, the narrative that was being shared was
that three D printers were going to be ubiquitous. Yeah,

everyone's going to have one and one in every home.
He's going to change the world. Yeah, you could print
anything you needed. If your chair broke, you could print
a replacement or the part that broke. If you needed
to end up printing out utensils, you could do that.
Like you've got more people over than you have plates,
for no problem, print a few plates. I think it
was it was seen as a form of democratization and

decentralization in a way, doing for physical objects what the
Internet does for information. Right, And so there there's one
question that we have in here. We were asking did
it did it really have that fund that huge of
an impact on people? And I would argue that in general, no,

it has not. That's not to say that there aren't
specific cases where it did have an enormous impact, there are, sure,
But the kind of the kind of fear that was
being expressed that was like, well, I'm I'm a I'm
a furniture designer, and will anyone ever buy my art again,
my my my artistic beautiful items again if they can
just print them at home, which everyone will be able

to do really soon, right, that the fear that businesses
like Ikea would disappear because anyone could just go take
some photos of Ikea furniture, go home, and three D
model them and then print them up in a day's
time and then you've got your own, you know, shelf
with a weird Scandinavian name. And and looking at our

at our legacy collection of of these bizarre plastic hairballs
that that's hilarious and it's like fear is just funny.
And even the successful print jobs, which are mostly just
chot keys, right there's we didn't really succeed in printing
anything of of real substance, and at least that's on

a large scale. The best thing I was able to
print was a flat, uh flat thing in the shape
of the state of Tennessee, which is my home state.
I remember that we used to have a three D
printer before the one that we've got now. It was
a smaller one, and I remember one of the things
that printed, and I remember being blown away by it
at the time was it was like a little castle

tower kind of like right yeah, and it had windows
in it and if you look through the windows, you
can see a spiral staircase on the inside of the
chess piecease. And there was that, and that just blew
my mind. It printed, it printed a spiral staircase on
the inside of this thing. That's that first printer you
had might have been a better one. It was. It

was also it was also a much smaller one, and
it was not capable of printing in two different colors
of plastic simultaneously. But then you could argue neither was
ours though it was designed to do so. Um, So yes,
I would say that in large part it has failed
to deliver. However, that being said, I do not want

to be completely dismissive, because we are very much aware
of cases where three D printers, even consumer level three
D printers, have made a remarkable difference in people's lives.
One example of that are there's there are a couple
of different projects where people have open sourced the design

and production of prosthetics for kids who might not otherwise
be able to afford them. Yeah, and I like, like
a whole bunch of high schoolers have done this, and
it's amazing. Now, these prosthetics that are designed, they're not
intended to be permanent replacements. They tend to be sort
of a temporary thing while a child is still growing,

because obviously that's going to require new prosthetics over the
course of of the person's life. But they are something
that allows a child to have a little more utility,
uh than they would otherwise, And so there's no denying
that it's had an impact. And again, that was using
consumer level three D printers. But that's a special case, right.

We are not in the future where everybody has their
own three D printer, where everyone is printing all the
physical things they need. Well, And it's not just that
that hasn't happened yet, because you could still argue I
guess that, well, maybe that's going to happen someday in
the far future. It's just you know, no one would
have expected such a thing to happen so soon. But
I'm interested in the fact that that used to be

a much more strongly represented narrative in tech journalism and
the popular consciousness than it is today. I don't hear
people talking about that anymore. And it feels like the
idea that that Back to the Future Part two had
that we would have a fax machine in every room,
yeah right, right, yeah, And so that kind of ground
level enthusiasm for three D printers does not seem to

be on the rise. And I also wanted to talk
about some some specific market trends, like just economic trends
regarding three D printing. Yeah, because this can this can
lead to evidence about whether or not that that we're
actually seeing a bubble or if it's just no, we're
just on the journey to that destination. We just haven't

reached it yet. Yeah. I think that was really the
first big boom year in the stock market for for
companies that were offering commercial and consumer three D printing
technologies for sale. UH. Stratusis was up a hundred and
sixty percent that year. That's that's pretty significant growth. Three
D Systems was up two hundred and seventy stratess UH,

and their stocks would continue to rise. The Stratusis maintained
its growth longer. So Stratusis that you know, they said, well,
we we do three D printing solutions, so they were
one of the big consumer three D printing companies out there.
According to Nasdaq, the Stratusis stock price peaked around a
hundred and thirty to a hundred and forty dollars a
share around the end of and it stayed high through

the middle of but it has been falling ever since then.
It's now close to about twenty bucks a share. That's
a pretty significant drop, although I would need to look
into it further to see make sure like they didn't
have any stock splits or anything, because that can affect
the price as well. But oh yeah, but assuming that
there weren't any splits, then yeah, that's not a great story.

Uh again, Also three D Systems, I decided to look
that up. The three D printer manufacturer three D Systems
peaked closer to the beginning of at about a hundred
bucks and has been mostly falling since then, is now
out about fifteen bucks. Yeah, so if you look at
market trends, it's it's looking pretty dire, right that that

kind of leads to or leans us closer to the
conclusion that there was a bubble issue. Um. And you
can you can also on the on the technology end,
on the price end of the technology, kind of look
at at how how it's been developing over that period
of time, like like how how how low can you go? Um,

Like like how how much can you make this available
to people through price cuts? And and that affects there
there are multiple effects that we would discuss your right,
like like you have the very low ends side. Once
you get the price down to a certain amount, yes,
you've made it more accessible to a larger audience. But
chances are, you know, the phrase you get what you

paid for it comes into play, right, So if you're
paying a smaller amount for a three D printer, chances
are it's not at the quality of one of the
really good ones, which means the experience of the person
has even though they now have access to a three
D printer, is not necessarily a positive experience. Yeah, And
I think there's like a strange little curve happening in
those prices over the past few years where wherein actually

the prices have started to go up again for for
some of the like base unit models. And we'll talk
about this. So so at the back at the kind
of kind of beginning of this trend, back in a
the low end of consumer devices was a little bit
above a thousand bucks a pop um. The low end
of of commercial devices was about ten thousand dollars. Yeah,

by the end of we saw home units priced as
low as two hundred. That's that's great. That's obviously not
a advancement in the technology in that time, at least
leading to that kind of pricing. I think what happens
is this is an armchair analysis here, I would argue
that what happens is in two thousand twelve UH and

early two you see this incredible interest in the concept
of three D printing. UH the media, and the media
has involved, Investors are involved. As they start to drive
up the market value of various companies, other companies say, hey,
we can make some money getting into this business too.

We like money. So you get a lot more companies
making a lot more three D printers. Along the entire range.
You've got some that are making very expensive ones and
some making budget ones, trying to hit that consumer market
because once interest goes up super high, you can really
profit off of that. Right. People, people know what three
D printing is, they've heard the term. They are eager

to get involved in this. Uh. And if you're not
already part of the hobbyist scene, you may not be
aware of what devices really are the best ones. You
may just see, oh, hey, I've heard of three D printing.
This thing's on sale for two dollars. That's that's an
investment I feel comfortable making. It's like your well meaning
uncle getting you and in Timbo for and you just

started going like, well think thanks, Polly station three man,
I played so many hours of Super Macio Brothers. It
was Ralph Macchio, but they never named the other one. Yeah.
Fun times anyway, So to kind of look at some
where the spread is right now, if you're looking at

like what's considered the best of three D printers in
various categories. One of the resources I like is a
site called three D hubs dot com. I've used it
before actually, because it also can put you in touch
with people who run businesses where they print three D
objects for you. You can send them the plans or

and and in fact I used this a couple of
times with some costume pieces I was able to send
because because our printer, well it's awesome. I mean, I
do really like our printer. It does definitely have some
major problems that you've gotta babysit that thing which is
problematic because it takes so long to print. Um, it
was just not gonna I think. I recall at the time,

the size of the build plate was an issue. Yes,
I needed something that was going to be larger and
I and I didn't want to have to break the
build up into too many smaller parts and then glue
it all together. Uh. I did have it printed in
three parts because it was still pretty big. But I
was able to go with use three D hubs to
find someone and they were you know, they would oversee

the build and make sure the quality was there, so
I didn't have to worry about any of that. But
three D hubs also has a section where they rate
various three D printers that are on the market and
they divide them up into categories that include enthusiast, plug
and play, a budget and kits or d I Y projects.
So the costs have certainly come down over the last

few years. I mean, when you look at when they
were first on the market, you're talking in excess of
five thousand dollars, but again by we're getting down to
a round a thousand dollars. Today, if you want a
really nice three D printer, you're still paying more than
a thousand dollars. It's not like it's not like computers
where you could say, well, I'm gonna get a mid
range computer and that's gonna be like a couple hundred

bucks or five hundred dollars, maybe on on the higher
end of mid range, and it's not like that. With
three D printers, you're still really getting what you pay for.
Uh So, most of the reliable models they listed in
the enthusiast category were around undred dollars, like the Make
the Maker gear M two was the top performing printer

in the enthusiast category, and that was at one thousand,
eight hundred twenty five dollars. And also the enthusiast category.
Enthusiast makes it sounds like sound like, Hey, I'm into
did in three D printing. It means more than that.
Enthusiast means you are educated in the in the field.
You are familiar with the way three D printers work,

You're familiar with modeling software, you know, you know, you
have the it's not a casual hobbyists. Yeah, you you
have to be willing to go through that steep learning
curve that a lot of these machines require, and this
is one of them. They actually said, it is not
easy to use. It's a great printer, but it is
not intuitive. So it's one of those things that you know,

you start to make trades. Some of the other printers
in that same category cost more than two thousand dollars.
A couple were like when you went to the plug
in play type, which simplifies matters, They make it a
lot less complicated than some of the other models. You're
still paying more than a thousand dollars. Even in the
budget level. The printers that they listed as as good
reliable printers were five dollars or more. So, they didn't

have anything below five hundred dollars that they actually considered
to be a good three D print. Now that doesn't
mean there aren't sub three D printers out there, they
just might not be very user friendly or very effective.
Now it's it's kind of hard to say what does
price mean when it comes to demand, Like, has the

demand changed over time? It may very well be that
three D printers has never as as a as a product,
has never really branched out beyond a relatively small hobbyist
community there. I'm sure it's made some advances beyond that,
but I think at its core we're still looking at

a niche market. I don't think we're looking at a
general market for many many reasons. But you can't necessarily
draw those conclusions just from the the cost or the
price of these products. Well, there is partially the fact
that some companies have in fact stopped selling Yeah, those
poorly performing uh cheap three D printers like in In January,

three D Systems announced that it was going to stop
selling um it's consumer level three D printers. The model
that they're ditching is this industry unfavorite called Cube, which
which retailed for about a thousand bucks, was generally reported
to not work well, certainly not as well as competitors.
Um The company is maintaining its Cube Pro, which is

a manufacturing grade unit which sells for about three thousand
bucks and is better, better rated in the industry. But
but yeah, I think that this kind of thing is
is definitely indicative of the early consumer boom just being
a hype bubble um and and you know, companies have
had to realize that the technology isn't just the hardware.

It's the hardware and the software and neither is cheap
enough or easy enough to use currently to to make
three D printing at home but possible for that casual hobbyist.
I think for printing to really be that compelling to
a consumer, it has to be as dead simple as
printing on paper. And the problem is it isn't. It's

for multiple reasons it isn't. And like you were saying, Lauren,
it's it's the software and the hardware combined. There are
complications on both ends that are barriers to entry for
your average person. Uh, someone who's willing to really put
in the work. Obviously they can they can do it.
It's not like it's not like there's a bouncer outside

the three D printer world that says, I'm sorry, you
don't make the cut. But it means a lot more effort.
It's not something like even the plug in play Uh,
printers that are on three D hubs dot com aren't
necessarily completely intuitive and easy to use. They're less difficult

to use than some of the other models. Yeah, but
to get away from the technology itself for a moment
and look, uh, you know, what is a what is
a market analysts view of the overall uh you know,
market outlook for three D printing companies. I did find
in August CNBC article discussing this, it was talking about

that year's collapse in value for three D printing companies.
And apparently, in as we've been talking about three D printing,
it generated a lot of financial interest and a lot
of investment, and in fourteen all that sort of started
falling apart, not for everybody, though, as I noted earlier,
Stratusis was still doing well for most. But the article

quotes a senior analystic Cannalysts named Tim Shepherd, and Shepherd
says quote, I think last year we saw stock prices
of some of the leading three D printing companies inflated
beyond the level they should have been at based on hype,
and investors jumped on the bandwagon. But this is a
market where there's a lot of misunderstanding. The reality is
that it has huge potential to make a transformation to

the way products are made and designed, but those will
take a while to kick in. And I think that
makes a lot of sense, essentially saying people people were
getting excited about a thing they didn't understand, excited too early.
And there is in fact recent news that that demonstrates this.
Oh yeah, I mean there's still investment in three D

printing companies. I was just reading news from today or
I think the past couple of days about a three
D printing startup called Carbon that has received more than
two hundred and twenty million in funding with investors like BMW,
nikon Ge and the Japanese company js R um So
that and that I think that's more on the industrial

scale and manufacturing side. Yeah. Yeah, it's it's on the
production side of the manufacturing industry, and that's where a
lot of three D printing now seems like it's being
focused car parts, machine parts, aerospace parts, that that kind
of thing, and uh even on the hobby end. I
think that's largely what people have been using the technology
from it. I mean, maybe not car parts, but but

but y'all, there's so much three three D printed jewelry
on etc. Right now. One of those pieces is currently
on my wife's wrist. I'm sure it's beautiful, it's it's
it's nifty. She liked it. Yeah, so yeah, I was like,
I I could have printed that for you would have
taken could you would have taken about eight months? Could you?
Uh so? Yeah? I mean, I guess the question is

how if we're wanting to know how things have changed
in three D printing since we were first talking about it,
you know what, three three and a half years ago.
I think that over the past few years, various forms
of additive manufacturing have proved useful in specific scenarios where
it's worth investing in expensive, high quality technology, but at

the consumer and hobbyist level, I think three D printing
does sort of remain about as much of a novelty
as it was two or three years ago. Um, I
don't know what you all would think about that. I mean,
has it reached a valley in the hype cycle and
if so, when's it going to recover? Well, you know,

like like like looking looking at virtual reality, it's you know,
like that had a public hay Day that was that
was full of buzz about the incredible future, future future,
and it was mainly focusing on these really like like
far reaching entertainment applications, and and that failed so spectacularly

that that was followed by a couple really kind of
dark decades where the technology was still in use, but
very much so out of the public eye. You know,
it was being used for for for psychological therapy, for
for astronaut training, stuff like virtual boy, purposes, for for
making yourself really nauseated. So that's not even virtual reality,

is it. I mean, it's it was an attempt to
try and create something approaching virtual reality. I Uh, I
definitely think that the there are parallels. So with virtual reality,
you know, you had all this hype and The problem
was when the public became aware of the actual state
of the art of the technology at the time. This

ain't like I've been hearing on the news exactly compared
it to the hype. The two had some gaps between them,
I chasms, so much so that the term virtual reality
a lot of people a lot of people decided that
they weren't even going to use the term virtual reality
to describe their work anymore because it was considered a Yeah,

I had a stigma against it, so they started calling
it virtual environments or other terminology to try and avoid VR.
VR was considered toxic, and if you wanted to get
funding for your projects, then you had to figure out
something else. And it also meant that the they had
to the people who were working in that field. They

were starting to repurpose other equipment to act as VR
equipment because they no longer had the money to build
their own, you know, their own specific devices. So you
had this huge amount of hype, and then you had
the public kind of catch up to where the actual
technology was, and then once those could not be reconciled,

you saw a collapse. I think that's there's a really
good parallel to be made with consumer three D printers
in that respect. Um, Now, that's not saying that everyone
was guilty of sharing this vision of a three D
printer in every home and we're all printing out tables
and chairs and stuff like that. There were a lot

of journalists who had a much more modest view about
three D printing, and they were talking about how they
saw three D printing being more of an important role,
playing more of an important role in small businesses, in
production centers, where you might have a a small business
that prints on demand and build old objects on demand,

which is kind of similar to what we have now,
although I would argue that what we have now is
much more modest than even this projection. But this projection
doesn't take into account the idea of an industry being
overhyped and this collapsing in on itself somewhat right, if,
in fact, we had had a closer, a more conservative

build up with three D printing so many puns, then
perhaps we wouldn't have had we wouldn't have had the
precipitous fall, and we would see more examples of this.
But if you were to go to like three D
hubs dot com and you wanted to have something printed,
you could do that, and that's the kind of future
that a lot of journalists I would follow we're talking about.

They said, Yeah, I don't really think that this technology
is appropriate for the average person to have hooked up
to their PC because it has such a high demand
on your time and attention to get to a point
where you're really comfortable using it effectively, that it's outside

the realm of most consumers. So, uh, you know, they
those people, I think we're being responsible there they were
and being more grounded and realistic. Uh, it was not
enough to counteract the hype where everyone was saying, look
at the potential for this stuff and just equating that
to being like right around the corner and we'll all

have it at our fingertips all the time. Um, there
are some big problems that we need to be solved
for us to fix this. Because you asked, are we
in a valley? And if so, do we ever climb
out of it? And if so, when I mean, I
assume we will at some point. I'm just thinking, how
long will it take. I don't know that consumer three
D printers are ever going to be a huge product.

I think I think, I think it's like not the
foreseeable future, like like I could see it in I
mean maybe maybe the classic forty years, maybe even longer
than that. When you get to a point where it
truly is intuitive, it's easy to use the it's easy
to load, it's easy to uh switch out materials, especially

once we get to a point where the same device
can print in multiple materials. We're seeing prototypes of that
now on the professional side, nothing close to the consumer side.
But if we get to that then maybe, But right
now I would say that I think consumer three D
printers are pretty much um consigned to being in the

hobbyist realm and not not going much further than that. Um.
So the challenge then is how many or really the
question is how many companies will either have to switch
their strategies so that they're making more professional level materials
and fewer consumer ones, and which ones are just going

to completely go out of business because they have dedicated
themselves to producing a product for which there is no
sustainable market. You know, uh, well, you know, as as
we've as we've been saying, it sounds like a lot
of companies are in fact making that switch, and it's
it's why we are continuing to read a lot of headlines,

or not even headlines, but maybe stories that are incorporating
three D printing technology. Yeah, there's still life in the
hobbyist realm. So while I'm being kind of doom and gloom,
it's not like the hobbyists are going away. It's not
like they're less passionate about using three D printers. And
it's not like they're not pushing the envelope with what

three D printers are capable of doing. They are doing
all of those things. It's just it's a smaller population
than your general PC owner population. Sure. Sure, on the
professional level though, the print printers that are being produced
are getting more detailed. Um. I've seen a couple of
stories in the past couple of months about using three
D printers to to for example, to create thin plastic

membranes like like for you and fuel cells or water
treatment or food processing that have very very finely patterned
surfaces to help with particle flow or even with ion flow.
UM or another example these a foam like microstructures that
are three D printed that can retain their long term

stability and usability better than traditionally manufactured materials, meaning that, like,
like anything foami ish, like, like insulating material, shock absorbing
stuff of flotation devices could could be made to last
longer without breaking or without needing to be replaced. Yeah,
that that is something that we didn't really touch on.
But three D printing has really advanced our understanding of

material science anyways, like and even even given us the
opportunity to play with some levels of micro structures up
down to a certain scale. It's hard to use the
additive manufacturing, especially the traditional three D printing technologies for
anything truly truly tiny. For that, you've got to go

with a slightly different approach. It's still sometimes called three
D printing, but doesn't involve an extruder. Yeah, right, right,
But it's why I like, like tissue printing hasn't hasn't
really taken off yet, or hasn't really reached a level
of usability yet. Getting down to the cellular level is
not a little bit of a challenge. Yeah, there's been
a lot of progress in developing three D printers that
are capable of using different materials for one job, that

was one I had mentioned. So for years, three D
printing has primarily been used for prototyping, but if you
are able to print in multiple materials, that increases the
utility of a printer and allows it to become a
real manufacturing tool, so you can actually print a full
product as opposed to like printing the shell or the
casing or something pizza or a pizza. Yeah, I mean

three D printed food. It's a thing. But imagine being
able to print out an entire circuit board everything, Like
you're able to print the substrate and then you're able
to print the actual circuitry and have it all design
that way. Tell me when will we print man long pig? Well,
we're going back to food. And of course there's been

a lot of stories about three D printing and medical applications,
not just the ones about printing organs, not just for cannibalism.
Yeah yeah, not not just kidney. That's a good thing.
I have two of them because I want seconds. Um.
The the goal of printing oregans is obviously one of
those that we are striving for in medicine. But beyond that,
we're talking about like the prosthetics. Uh, we're talking about

um uh, some really interesting stuff. I read about a
story from the Autonomous University of Puebla, which is actually
the oldest university in Mexico, and in fact it's better
known as the Benamerta Universe Universe adad Autonoma the Puebla
in my accent is terrible, I know, I apologize, But

they've developed a three D printed bio material that mimics
bone and actually facilitates bone regen narration. So yeah, you
often see this coming up in regenerative medicine and stuff
like that, where there they need to substrate to to
to apply the scaff material to. Yeah, and the substrate
very often is a three D printed one because they

can custom make it to their specifications. And then also
something that goes hand in hand with three D printing
technology and modeling is using scanners being able to scan
physical objects so that you can create the three D
virtual model and then print a replica of it. We're
starting to see a lot more of those kind of

entering that prosumer consumer market, which that that removes a
big barrier, assuming it works well and assuming it has
an intuitive interface, which are two big assumptions. I know. Uh,
it does remove part of the barrier, which is building
out those virtual models for as as a plan to
send to a three D printer that that is a

skill that is uh not easy to attain. It requires
a lot of practice, a lot of work. And if
you have a scanner, then you can kind of do
some shortcuts. Right. If you can actually scan the thing
you want to print, and it's able to create a
an accurate virtual replica and you are able to send

that to a printer, you avoid a lot of steps
that otherwise would take you a very long time to
to do, especially if you had not had a lot
of experience and computer aided design. So we're seeing that
as well, and maybe that will increase the hobbyist population
a little bit because you've removed one of the barriers there,

but you still have other issues, like just the idea
that you have to sometimes babysit printing jobs and make
sure that everything is going all right and not turning
into the plastic thread of doom the way it would here. So,
I mean, I would hope that we would get out
of that valley. I would love to see three D

printing get a or like realistic uh standing, and and
increase in popularity, but at a natural rate as opposed
to a hyped rate where you do have this bubble burst.
I think we did an episode, and I may be
wrong about this. I know I've talked about it before

about how uh people tend to frame technologies as having
a particular um course where you've got the hype part
of products uh uh existence, and then you've got the peak,
and then you've got the decline, and then eventually it
levels out, and sometimes they level out higher up than

other technologies do. Uh. And I remember actually looking at
a map of one where it was really interesting because
it it put different technologies along that pathway, saying like
three D printing at that time was still on the
upward climb for hype, uh, and other technologies that had
been out for a bit, like three D televisions were
on the down words slope, right. So uh And some

of sometimes you could argue the hype is something that
was not necessarily fostered, right, That just kind of happens
because people get excited about it and it just sort
of has an organic build to its own. In other cases,
it's very much a fostered approach, where it has been
a manufactured attempt to to increase interest in something in

order to sell more units. Uh. We've we've seen examples
of both. I would argue three D television falls into
that second category a little more than the first. I
might be biased. I also covered three D televisions for
so many years that, uh, I'm a little bitter about it. Yeah. No,
I remember like every CS you would come back when
when I was on tech stuff and we would just

sit there and you would be like, yep, there were
some there were some of those. Ye, mansion televisions have
gotten so three dimensional they have. I mean, there's it's
weird because he's still trying to do that, not as much,
not as much now. That was that was a real
effort for uh, not just television companies, but but content

companies like Sony that does both. That it was a
real attempt to push that technology as a way of
of adding perceived value because there because once you hit
a certain resolution, uh, it's really hard to convince people
that you're getting that much more out of your device

than you were before. Same thing is true with three
D printers. Another great example three D printerers, you get
to a certain point beyond that your your returns are
so low you're getting a reduced return, like you you
might be paying five dollars more for what appears to
be a relatively subtle improvement in performance. Uh, fewer and

fewer people are willing to make that leap. Same thing
is true, and lots of different technologies obviously, but this
was kind of fun to look at. I mean, it
was one of those things where you know you can't
help but feel maybe a little sad that the hype
was overinflated things so quickly, because you know, it makes
it harder to make progress. Once that bubble bursts. Doesn't

mean necessarily everything goes away. The Internet didn't go away
after the dot com bubble burst, but man, things were
messy for about two years. It was it was not
an easy industry to work in. Uh, but that's a
story for another time. So this was interesting, and Joe,

thank you for suggesting it. It was Joe's idea that
we revisit this particular topic. And uh so, guys, if
you have any suggestions for future topics or a topic
you would like us to revisit, why not write us
let us know about it, because otherwise we won't know
and we'll just continue on with our very little lives.
You can get in touch with us by writing to
us our email addresses FW Thinking at how Stuff Works

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