This was originally posted on 1/4/2013, but I'm still a skeptical grump about 3D printing.
Over the holidays I finally got around to reading Wired's effusive article about Makerbot and the coming 3D printing revolution. I get it: 3D printing is going to take over the world. It's going to eventually let me download a car, and that's very cool. But in the interim, 3D printing appears to be nothing more than a distraction.
I want to own useful, practical, and cost-effective things. Making a plastic belt buckle, or RC plane wing, or clothes hanger isn't terribly compelling. And sit-around items like action figures don't meet the practicality rubric. Even if I were interested in making these things, I wouldn't want them made of plastic. For most US consumers, plastic is a poor substitute for the metals and alloys that we have come to expect in quality consumer devices. The real clincher though, is the ready availability of superior substitutes. I'm busy enough that learning to use a CAD program to create a plastic sub-component of an equivalent metal device I can purchase in a fully functional form for $10 on Amazon just doesn't make much sense. And I'm guessing that I'm not alone here.
The revolution in 3D printing is going to come when disinterested folks like me can download, customize, and effortlessly create complex products from the comfort of my own home without having to become proficient in CAD software and the vagueries of 3D printing hardware. Right now 3D printing is like the personal computer market in the late 80s; it has explosive growth potential and the possibility to disrupt our system of commerce right down the foundation, but it's all but inaccessible to anyone but engineers sporting the modern equivalents of pocket protectors.
I bothered to right this not to slam companies like Makerbot or tear down gushing writeups like the one I read in Wired. Makerbot is doing great work and Wired always gushes about new tech as though it will single-handedly bring about the singularity tomorrow. But until I can download that car I was talking about, articles about 3D printing are just distractions.