Why 3D Printing Sucks
3D printing is one of my favorite hobbies that I've ever taken on. It's challenging but rewarding, it's a cool freedom of expression through art as well also having a focus on engineering and technology. I always speak highly about 3D printing. There are times however when 3D printing sucks. By that I mean, while there are a ton of great things 3D printers can do, but there are also some things that 3D printing just isn't good for.
3D printing at home however, is not good for several things. It's not good for mass manufacturing items because of the length of time it takes to complete its work. 3D printing at home produces parts that are not particularly strong. In general, 3D printing is not a hobby for impatient people; not only do the prints take a long time to complete, but there is some tedious and ongoing maintenance that has to be done to keep your printer running well.
Those who don't know much about it sometimes make the assumption that 3D printing is easy or that you can print nearly anything. Those who have spent any time with a desktop quality 3D printer know that this simply isn't the case. This article isn't here to bash 3D printing, it's something I love and spend a lot of my time doing.
By the end of this article though, you will know some things that home 3D printing is not good for. Hopefully this will help inform you if you're exploring the hobby and are deciding whether or not to purchase a printer.
By knowing the things 3D printing can't do, you can decide if it's a hobby that sounds like it's for you or not. Keep in mind though that larger, industrial applications of 3D printing are getting more and more amazing every day, so all of these restrictions may not necessarily be true at that scale. The focus of this article is the limitations of 3D printing at home.
3D Printing Sucks at Mass Manufacturing
One of the visions that some people get when picking up a 3D printer is the idea that they will be able to invent, design, and print a line of items to sell at a big enough scale to make them significant money. That a 3D printer can be your basis for manufacturing a lot of a final good. This is not at all the case.
3D printers, especially home used ones, are extremely slow. Even small parts being printed in high quality can easily take over an hour. With the rate at which 3D printers do their job, it's just not possible to mass produce an item. It's not practical compared to other methods like injection molding, which can create hundreds of parts for just a few cents a piece once the initial expense of getting a mold made is incurred.
Don't let this slow down your dreams of inventing the next great product though! 3D printers at home can still help in a major way. What 3D printing is good for, is what's called rapid prototyping.
In the old days (pre-3D printers) when a design for a part was created, people would spend hours and hours laboring over every fine detail in the plans/drawings. There'd be measurements made again and again to make sure the part was perfect to spec. Then, a highly skilled modeler would physically create a one-off version of the product by hand; taking lots of time to be accurate and make sure every detail was correct to the design. Then this model would get sent to be prototyped in a better material and after weeks of waiting, a pre-production part would arrive. This part would get tested and if it wasn't exactly right the process would essentially start over. They would do this again and again until the part was just right and could go into production. As you can see, it may take months upon months to design a simple piece using this method.
3D printing however now reduces the steps to a very simple streamlined process. Now all you need to do is put your precise measurements into the computer to create your 3D design, and export to a 3D printing utility. If you print the item in-house and it's not quite perfect then no problem! Just make some adjustments to your 3D model and print again. Depending on the size of the part, it's possible to do this multiple times a day! This is much faster than waiting weeks upon weeks for a sample to be made by a specialist just to find out that your design isn't quite spot on.
3D Printing Sucks at Making Very Strong Parts
Another misconception about 3D printers is that they can create perfect replacement parts for nearly everything. This simply isn't true, and there are probably more commonly things you can't use 3D printing for than things that you can use it for. You would not want to try a 3D printed replacement for things like a car engine component, safety gear for climbing, or to fix heavy load-bearing shelves.
Not Reliable at Bearing Weight
First of all, 3D printers for use in the home are not sophisticated enough to print using materials like metal. Sure, some people may claim that they can print with steel or bronze but really what they're doing it's printing with plastic that has small bits of steel or bronze mixed in. While that is really cool and the end-effect is great, these pieces are not anywhere near as strong as something like cast metals. (If you are interested in this metal-look effect though, check out these filaments from ProtoPasta, they look amazing!).
3D printers create physical objects by printing layers one on top of the other. These layers somewhat stick together, but they don't entirely fuse in to a solid block of plastic. Because of this, they can be a weak-point for a 3D printed model. Layers occasionally completely come-apart.
Would you trust this to hold your body weight if you had a 3D printed carbiner? I sure wouldn't! (If it wasn't clear, NEVER use 3D printed parts as safety equipment, visit a store and purchase the right gear!.)
3D Prints Don't do Well in Hot Environments
Another area you would not use a 3D printed part is anywhere that is hot. Basically all home-grade 3D printers will use some kind of plastic as their source of material. With that in mind, any part that would require heat resistance is not a good option with 3D printing. Some materials are getting better about heat resistance, but at the end of the day, it's all still plastic. Even if the part doesn't fully melt, it can easily soften and bend enough to break or get deformed.
One final comment on the weakness of 3D prints involves the material used. For most home applications, PLA filament is used. While I think this is an awesome material for many things and has a ton of advantages, it's fairly brittle. Meaning that if you put any significant force on it, this plastic tends to crack and break vs. bend.
What types of things is 3D printing useful for? Well there are a lot of small applications beyond just creating tiny desktop trinkets. I've done everything from creating storage for small parts, to designing a part to fix my dishwasher. You can see my personal top 10 list of practical prints here for more ideas.
3D Printing Sucks if You're Impatient
Something I hear commonly from those not in-the-know is "3D printing is easy. You just hit a button and the machine makes it for you in like an hour, right?" As anyone who's spent some time with a 3D printer knows, that's not the case. Not only can there be some challenges with the machine and materials to get high-quality prints, but there is also the fact that home 3D printing is just plain slow.
Patience and persistence is the name of the game when it comes to 3D printing, and getting your printer ready is no exception.
One example of a process that can take some time is leveling the print bed. In order for a printer to work as intended, it must print on a smooth and level surface. Leveling the bed is a process that helps make sure the surface is flat in relation to the printer extruder.
There are a lot of factors that can make leveling not go smoothly and if you're impatient and rush the process, you're more likely to have to spend time re-leveling everything a few times. Between leveling, test printing, and re-leveling, this can eat up an entire afternoon!
Besides just spending time on regular maintenance, and even assuming things go perfectly, 3D printing is slow!!! I've had some larger prints take 22-24 hours or more.
If you're printing safely and are always monitoring your prints, you can see how easily 3D printing can affect your entire day. If I'm trying to get a big project done, I have to plan ahead and schedule a full day at home just to make sure I can keep an eye on things.
All that said, doing larger prints gives me a good excuse to stay home and get other projects done around the house. So it's not all bad! Also, this time can vary wildly depending on how large of an item you're printing as well as the level of quality you're printing it at. Don't expect anything to be just "a quick print" away though!
All That Said, I Love 3D Printing!
Hopefully I haven't scared you off from the idea of 3D printing entirely. There are a lot of great uses and the hobby is just plain fun if nothing else. If you are interested and having your 3D printer work for you though, make sure to check out the rest of the blog to see some examples of functional and practical prints.