In 1977 Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp, one of the biggest mini-computer companies said "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." He claimed he was misquoted, but the quote stuck as a classic representation of a guy so out of touch that he didn't see where his own technology was going. There are a lot of people saying exactly the same thing now about 3D printers, and they are wrong for exactly the same reasons.
Last year it was Christopher Mims, then writing with MIT Technology Review, and now that he has moved on to Quartz, Jessica Leber takes up the gauntlet with What Yoda Taught Me About 3-D Printing. She had a bad experience trying to print out a bust of Yoda on a Delta Micro Factory machine, ending up with what she called " a stringy nest of half-melted thermoplastic" instead. She writes:
The big drawback for consumers is that 3-D printers are still tricky to use and very limited in what they can make. The objects they produce are not just fairly crude but quite small, since the thermoplastic will warp at larger sizes. What’s more, thermoplastics are just the kind of cheap, brittle material many people hate.
Yes, and in 1983, not many people knew what to do with computers, other than try and replace things that they had like typewriters and slide rules. The dot-matrix printers were really crude. For anything of higher quality when you wanted to print a document, you took your disk to a printing house. Then when laser printers became affordable, we only took color jobs to the printing house. Now we do color laser in house. This took thirty years.
Now Formlabs is about to unleash the first affordable stereolithographic 3D printer, the equivalent of going from dot matrix to laser printer. So while for now, as Jessica writes, "The constraints of the at-home technology explain why the latest shift in consumer 3-D printing is toward centralized facilities not unlike photocopy shops," that's not going to be the case for long.
Then we won't be shipping stuff around the world, we will be shipping ideas.