To 3D Or Not To 3D? When 3D Printing Is The Answer And When It’s Not


I once heard a friend say, “If I had a 3D printer I could make lots of money, printing out a stockpile of things he could sell.” It sounded as though he believed a 3D printer was some kind of home factory; that all you had to do was feed in raw materials on one side and out would come widgets for sale on the other. 3D Printers are awesome, and they are sort of a mini factory, but the whole thing isn’t that simple. 3D printers aren’t always the best way to make something. Sometimes it’s better to pick up a piece wood and a saw to make that thing you need.

A few years ago, I was shopping in one of my favorite stores. I’m sure you’ve heard of them; they’re a sort of toy store for grown-ups, where they sell everything that having to do with electronics to computers to washing machines. This day the store was having a sale on a particular brand of 3D printers. It brought their price down to a level I could afford and having had a strong desire to get into 3D printing for several years, I could not resist the price and bought one.

One of the first things to happen to me was probably what happens to most people when they first get a 3D printer; I started thinking of all the things I could make with it. It was as though everywhere I looked, I would think… ‘I could make one of those’. For the first few days, I was experiencing a kind of head rush, where constantly, whenever I looked at something, I’d think, ‘I could make that if I wanted to’ or ‘I could make that too’ and ‘I can make one of those’, etc., etc., etc. I was like this until I started to learn more, reality started to set in and I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as that. I couldn’t just want something and print it out. I had an idea before I bought the printer that there would be some work involved. I knew I’d have to do some designing. I just didn’t realize how much work designing was going to be. And I was already aware there were libraries to download models already designed, ready to be printed out. That even though there are thousands of things to download on those sites, not everything can be found in these sharing libraries and especially in my own case, I knew I’d probably have to design most of the things I would want or need.

None of that scared me away. I’ve always been a maker. I love to create! You get the best feelings from making something yourself. Most of my life my motto has been: ‘try not to buy it, if you can make it.’ Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t make everything I could. I would just make what I could, when I could. Owning a 3D printer wasn’t the beginning of my makership life, but it was a beginning to a whole new world of possibilities. Since I already had experience with making, I quickly began to realize, not only how much work was involved in the creation of a 3D print, but what it costs in money and especially time. Most of the useful prints I would create would take anywhere from 1 to 8 hours. The bigger ones even longer and that’s just to print, it doesn’t count designing time. My motto started to evolve. Maturing might be more accurate. I started to think, was it really better for me to print something out that was already available to buy somewhere? Pretty soon, when I saw something I wanted to make, I began to ask myself some important questions: Was it cheaper to print it myself? Was it quicker to print it myself? Or would it be better quality if I printed it myself? The answer to these questions most of the time was: ‘Not Really’. Did that mean I should just forget the idea of printing these things out myself? No, of course not. It just meant that I should really think about when and what I invested my time and patience into designing and/or printing.

3D Printer owners should realize that 3D printers were born from the world of rapid-prototyping. The keyword being ‘prototyping’: the creating of an experimental, temporary version of something. Well, 3D printers have clearly outgrown their original purpose and have learned to do so much more. We still use them for prototyping, but now and especially at home, they are also being used to make ‘End-Use’ products, repair parts, parts to larger projects, patterns for molds and more. [A side note: Did you know that nowadays they’re even 3D printing homes?]

Back to my friend, he may have been a little off when he thought his 3D printer would be a factory that would make him rich, but he wasn’t completely wrong. 3D Printers are practically a factory, but if they are, they’re a slow-moving factory. One that can take hours or even days to produce a single widget. So, unless you’re working with silver or gold, you’re not going get rich waiting on this factory to put out a decent supply of widgets to sell. [A side note: It is possible to work with silver and gold on your 3D printer, but that’s a discussion for another day.]

They may be slow, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For one thing, these factories work with custom orders! You may have a need for some widgets, each with a slight variation and, if you’re talking about dozens of widgets, maybe 100’s of variations, then your slow-moving factory might still be faster than doing each one by hand. 3D Printers can be very consistent when you want them to be. They don’t mind repetition and they’re generally reliable. Let’s say you need a large quantity of highly detailed, identical widgets that could take hours just to make one by hand. You’d be looking at eternity if you did each one by hand. With a 3D printer, you only have to spend hours designing the first one in a CAD program. After that, no more designing needed, only the print time is left to factor in. When it comes to producing a large quantity of something, you might decide it’s better to reproduce each one on the printer or only print the original and use it as the pattern for a mold that you can use to reproduce as many as you need.

I’d like to say one more thing about my friend, the one who thought he might get rich pumping out widgets in his little home factory. Okay, it’s possible, he might get rich!! 3D Printers aren’t the solution to every question, but they are a very good answer, when they are the right answer. Who knows, with the time he can save or with the ease of making somethings, my friend may come up with a better design, a new way of doing something or some invention that becomes the next big thing and makes him a millionaire!

• Prototyping Proof of Concept – they can produce “what-if” variations quickly.
• Prototyping for Fit – they have a quick turn-around time from redesign to product.
• One Offs – They can produce quality custom parts, tools and just about anything.
• Copies – they can replicate unlimited copies of an object or part.
• Scaled Copies – they can reproduce scaled versions of objects or parts.
• In Hand – Can reproduce objects or parts that normally would require travel or delivery to get.
• They can produce On-Demand. No need to store unnecessary parts for possible need.
• They can create things in plastic, where other materials wouldn’t do or do as well.
• They can create things in metal without a forge or CNC machine.
• They can create highly detailed things in wood it would take exponentially longer to carve.
• They can create things in many exotic materials, like food, glass, ceramics, bioink and more.
• They use less material than traditional methods of manufacturing.
• They can produce 3D tangible objects from non-tangible ideas.
• They can produce Full-Color 3 dimensional objects in fewer steps than any other process.
• They can build automatically while unattended.


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Darren Hughes

Darren is a Nerd/Jock hybrid. In fact, he maybe the original nerd. In the '60's, he and his Sister were certainly among the first Trekkies, having pretended to be the crew of Enterprise at night (after watching the original series during it's inaugural run) and playing little league in the day. Darren holds a few college degrees. One of them for Engineering and another for Computer Networking. He's always been a fan of learning and technology. Darren has only been 3D printing for a couple years and still considers himself a novice. It is his hope for this blog site to share what he learns as he goes with other beginners, to save them time and hassle finding the best 3D printing and avoiding the worst.