Replicate This

replicator3D printing is certainly a manufacturing revolution in the making. Early success in technologies like stereolithography has paved the way for an additive manufacturing future, posed to completely turn conventional manufacturing on its head. Industrial application of 3D printing seems limitless, though there are many hurdles still regarding cost, speed, and available materials. Yet hopes for the consumer side of the equation, built on the momentum of early success like the Makerbot enthusiast community, paints a future where everyone and their dog will own a 3D printer to print all kinds of fantastic magical crap for the home. Provided, of course, your concept of fantastic magical crap is mostly rejects from the land of misfit toys. 3D printers are capable of so much more, yet the opportunity is largely wasted. While 3D printing certainly has garnered a dedicated enthusiast community, mainstream traction has been lacking. After all, consumers are already kicking conventional paper printers (and copiers) to the curb with extreme prejudice. Perhaps hanging a new market on the word “print” may not be the best idea right now. But, hey, that’s how this is going to roll.

Makerbot is arguably the pioneer in defining the print-at-home market and they were suitably rewarded via acquisition by Stratasys last year. They started the long quest towards a mainstream printing Nirvana not yet achieved. They have a solid product, a rich community of models, and even service plans for the machines themselves. Yet mainstream success is fleeting. Several other companies are now trying to tackle the consumer 3D printing space, with similar result. What’s the hold up? Simple: Most of what is printed is utterly useless.

Objection! Printing a variety of useful parts, tools, and machine elements is readily achievable using a Makerbot, or most any other 3D printer. After all, early Makerbot units were often built with parts printed by progenitor Makerbot units – fulfilling, at least in part, the whole self-replicating machine fantasy. Yet very little of this is readily apparent to anyone on the outside. There is a distinct lack of compelling applications designed to capture both the imagination and understanding of the consumer. The internet instead focuses and produces what seems like an endless parade of questionable knick-knacks. Be sure to Google “useful things printed with a Makerbot” and see just how many useless things are out there, on the island of misfit toys.

Richard Kranium, a long time friend, engineer and hobbyist, rightfully places much of the blame on marketing. (Note: I have replaced his more colorful metaphors with Farscape vernacular):

I also think part of the blame for the public’s inability to grasp the potential of 3D printing can also be placed on manufacturers (and/or their marketing geniuses) as well, because every frelling time they show you what the printer can do, it’s always some frelling Yoda print, or something similarly useless. I’m pretty sure Form Labs has a strict policy for their blog about only featuring useless figurines or artsy fartsy dren or whatever.

Hello, if all you ever demonstrate your printer with is useless dren like a frelling coat hanger shaped like a lion for no good frelling reason, then it’s little wonder the public looks at that and starts associating 3d printers with nothing but useless dren.


If we trace the history of consumer 3D printing, patterns emerge:

  • A hard to assemble and somewhat expensive, do-it-yourself kit, that with hours of dedicated modeling work prints mostly useless things.
  • An off-the-shelf though fairly expensive printer that with some careful manipulation of a downloaded model prints mostly useless things.
  • An off-the-shelf though fairly expensive printer with a dedicated library of models, some needing a few tweaks in order to print mostly useless things.
  • A smaller, cheaper printer that draws upon the same library of mostly useless things.
  • A much larger printer so that you can print an entire batch of mostly useless things at once!

The latest entrant is New Matter’s Mod T, which aims to solve the problem by making a progressively cheaper, prettier machine. It prints a curated collection of mostly useless things. And what’s the killer app cited for this latest technology iteration?

“If you and I both have Mod Ts and it’s your birthday, I [can] find a great print and send it to your printer. It just prints out and surprises you. I think things like that will make this an interesting part of our lives.”

Seriously. A printer that surprises me. By printing for hours. Perhaps a small blue bunny rabbit. Using my thermoplastic resin nonetheless. Gee thanks – you shouldn’t have!  Worst birthday ever.

Enough, already. It’s time to end the parade of mostly useless things, and turn directly to what everyone is thinking about when they see a 3D printer. They’re thinking about replicators. The very machines that with a mere voice command can deliver a spare warp coil or Earl Grey Tea, hot nonetheless. While that final vision seems so obviously distant, printing toys from libraries of freelance designers is not the right path. Consumers have limited interest for sorting, downloading, or manipulating 3D models. The focus instead needs to be on clutch utility – one likely avenue is repair and replacement parts. Parts generated not by creating a model, not by downloading it from a library, but simply offering the original to the device, or what’s left of it, scanning it, then with minimal interaction and manipulation, either duplicating or healing the original. Sure you’ll be limited to the realm of certain plastics largely, but if you happen to look around you right now, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of potential applications.

So the next time someone offers to print a bunny rabbit or Yoda on a 3D printer, tell them no thanks. Ask for something useful.

  • I have about 15 to 20 parts printed per year for prototypes. I have done it for years. Here is a job that was done by stereolithography and silicones molds were made. It really shows the functionality of 3D printing, of course, at that time it was Sterolithography.


    I am a ZW3D VAR and they have priced their basic Professional CAD system at $650,00, easily within the budget of any hobbyist or inventor that wants to create functional solid parts ready for 3D printing. It wasn’t the price that bothered them, they did not want to go through the learning curve of CAD.

    You have to have and .stl before you can 3D print anything!!!

    I have a customer that bought a Mojo and the basic $10,000 was just the beginning. The supplies are very costly. They have lots of money and we have it very busy with concepts by the owner. Lots of fun!!

    But I found that some 3D printers are more equal than others. The Mojo just gets you by for prototypes. Sometimes I have to modify the parts because of the tolerance. Even with the 3D printing houses you get a wide variance in quality.

    You can see one of their cable assemblies in this article showing the use of two systems. Sorry for the promo but it is sort of cool presentation. (In my mind, LOL)

    Incredible CAD Combo

    • Stereolithography was also my introduction into 3D printing. I forget exactly what printer we had back then, but I recall designing a fiberglass mold for a 6ft aircraft radome using SLA. We printed it in 12-16 pieces or so (due to the size limitation of the printer), bolted it together with normal hardware, and sealed the seams. It was a really nifty way to shortcut the mold fabrication process. The others involved (some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with) had received a patent on the technique a few years earlier.

      Seems quaint by today’s standards, but we were exploring a brave, new world back then.

      • I was lucky to have an associate in the prototype business. Pre-CAD work. I watched as they moved to stereolithography and soon to 3D printing. We were really pushing the envelope. He is now living the life of Reilly after selling his firm to 3D systems.

        Soon many others showed up. I was selling CADKEY at the time and many were producing many parts. My best job was with Boeing where we modeled the Osprey and the Strike Force Fighter for some kind of heat signature studies. It was easy to sell CADKEY, the only other product was Pro/e… LOL

        Due to the size of the Linefinder lower support, we had to break into two pieces. Then bonded to create the silicone mold. You many be interested in the modification we did a few years later. These changes were done in SpaceClaim.


  • Ross Bernheim

    I’ve printed a number of useful items with my 3D printer. A custom funnel, Fly traps that really work. I just designed a replacement knob for a 30 year old receiver. The old knob broke years ago and rendered the band changing capabilities inoperable. It took me a bit of time in a CAD program to design the replacement knob. I printed it and now have a fully functional receiver.

    I have a number of other projects to do as my CAD skills increase. One thing to remember is that plastic is not metal and designs need to be done to take this into account.

    One of the nice things is that having designed the knob, I can now print more if needed as well as upload it so others can make it or use it as inspiration for their own designs.

    Just as a word processor and laser printer won’t make everyone an author, neither will a 3D printer make everyone a designer. Tools alone do not make a craftsman. It is learning a number of skills in how to use the tools and an itch to scratch.

    • Interesting examples and some great wisdom, Ross. Outside of those who do have design skills already, do you see application for 3D print to be in the home – i.e. for the “mainstream” consumer?

      • Ross Bernheim

        Just as the computer, spreadsheets, word processors and printers enabled a lot of people to learn how to do new things that they could do for pleasure or profit, so will 3D printers and the associated software enable a lot of people to do new things for both fun and profit.

        Free or low cost CAD software or modeling software will enable a whole new range of hobbies and businesses.

        Decorative items, artwork, jewelry, kitchen and office items, sports things are a few of the areas where 3D printers are being used by people all over.

        3D printed custom prosthetics are another area gathering a lot of interest and work.

        The beauty of a 3D printer is that you can customize or build one off items as needed or desired.

        I printed the parts for an extruder upgrade for my 3D printer as well as several other upgrades. Now I’m printing a housing for a Raspberry Pi camera and a mount for the Raspberry Pi to my 3D printer so I can set up a streaming video of the build process.