Why 3D Print? Pros and Cons 2017-07-03T17:36:44+00:00

Advantages of 3D Printing

In order to make a successful 3d printed product, understand the 3d printing marketplace, or just use 3d printing effectively – it’s vitally important to have a general understanding of “Why 3D Print?” There are plenty of ways to make objects, so why would you want to choose to 3d printing something over another production method?  To answer this question, we’ll dive into a few reasons why 3d printing is great, a few ways in which 3d printing has significant constraints, and a series of pros and cons to help you be able to make an informed decision of whether to 3d print something.

Oftentimes, 3d printing offers an excellent opportunity, and other times it may be too costly or it may be possible to make something with 3d printing, but another option may be better or easier.  I often tell people that just because you can 3d print something doesn’t mean that you should.  That being said, here are a list of pros for 3d printing.

Complex Geometry

One of the main advantages to 3d printing is that it allows the production of extremely complex geometry – that could not be made by any other production method.   In my opinion, this is the most significant advantage to 3d printing.  With other conventional manufacturing methods, typically, the more complex an object or part, the more expensive it is to produce.  This is because the more complex an object, the more steps that would be required of a manufacturing process.  Because of this, people often say that with 3d printing, complexity is free.  Meaning that adding significant complexity to an object does not proportionately increase costs. In fact, a more complex or porous object can actually make its production cheaper.

The complexity allowed by 3d printing means that you can produce objects that far exceed the capabilities of casting, injection molding, and especially making something by hand.  That means objects can be made with pores, undercuts, overhangs, or interior details that may be difficult, if not impossible with other productions methods.

Lighter Stronger Parts

In the aerospace industry, efficiency improvements of small parts can save millions of dollars.  With 3d printing GE has been able to use unique geometric forms to optimize for weight and strength for airplane and jet parts.  The results have been staggeringly effective which led to GE making $1.4 billion of acquisitions in the metal 3d printing space.

Faster Design Cycle Iteration

Ask almost any industrial design or product design consultant today, and they’ll tell you the same thing. 3D printing has changed the way products are designed, developed, and produced.  Even inexpensive desktop 3d printers that lack the resolution or material capabilities of some higher end models are able to very quickly produce sometime rough prototypes that will accelerate the design iteration process.  These initial prototypes can be extremely valuable even if they answer a simple question about the design of a product:  What does it feel like?  What does it look like?  How does it feel when I hold it in my hand?  Once you can collect feedback based on a design by holding a 3d printed design, you can not only iterate quicker, but also help design better products.

For example, Brooklyn based company, Spuni, came up with a product idea to solve a problem.  When babies transition to solid food, many current spoon designs were just miniature versions of adult spoons – either too wide or too deep for a baby to eat without creating a mess.  Spuni founder Marcel Brotha used a BPA-free plastic material and printed dozens of iterations of a spoon design until finding the final form.

It’s not just Spuni that are leveraging 3d printing to create iterations of product designs.  A significant proportion of design studios are using desktop 3d printers on the product development side to rapid test their ideas on sometimes a daily basis.

Customization and the “Long Tail”

What am I talking about when I say the “long tail”?  The long tail is a term used to describe the shape of this graph.  On the graph you’ll see the popularity of products compared with the amount of products with that given popularity.  Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired Magazine, wrote a really good book about this called, unsurprisingly, “The Long Tail” with the subtitle of “Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More”.  One of the examples of an industrial with a long tail and a head is the music industry.  There are a few musicians and artists that create massive hits – think Beyonce or Drake, or Adele.  These artists sell massive amounts of albums and singles (at the far left of the graph).  However, for each Beyonce, or Drake, or Adele, there are tens of thousands of other musicians that sell 100 albums a year – and then some farther down the graph that only sell 5 albums a year – and so on.

Another example where long tail graphs exists is on google searches.  About 70% of google searches are considered long tail searches – and nearly 20% of those google search queries have never ever been searched before.

Although there will likely always be “hits”, Chris Anderson argues that our consumer economy is on a trend towards a model which the market of the aggregate of all of these long tail products is much greater than the market of the “hits” (or the head of the graph”).

What does this have to do with 3d printing?  Well, making products the conventional way with mass manufacturing, products are both designed and marketed to be average – to fit the wants, needs, and desires of an average consumer and appeal to the largest swath possible.  In contrast with mass manufacturing, 3d printing can produce one-of-a-kind custom products.  For instance, a product could be customized with a name, a wearable could be tailored to ergonomically fit your body – a product of great value to an individual could potentially be produced only one time.

As 3d printing technology develops to produce more end-use products, we’ll only see this trend of “long tail” products amplify.

On Demand Manufacturing

One gigantic advantage to 3d printing – when it comes to a technology that has the potential to upend how consumer goods are manufactured – is that there you can produce an object on-demand.   Let’s compare this to the way many of our current consumer good are produced.  First, they are mass manufactured, typically overseas.  Next, they are packed up and freighted across the ocean.  This is a big problem – because shipping emissions account for almost 20% of global co2 emissions.  After this, products typically arrive in mass at a port.  Then the products are driven to a distribution warehouse.  Then products are distributed to a retailer.  On top of this, there is huge waste in inventory.  Holding inventory of products costs money and many products have surpluses of inventoried products that end up going to waste.

Consider an alternative with 3d printing – given that 3d printing could produce a given end-use product:  when you want a product, it can be produced geographically close to the point of consumption, on demand.  This relieves the need for wasted inventory and wasteful travel of a product around the globe.

Waste Reduction

Although 3d printing materials and processes vary (especially in terms of their environmental friendliness), 3d printing is inherently green.  Building on the last point about on-demand manufacturing, 3d printing is also inherently sustainable because it is an additive process.  This means that in many cases, you can eliminate much of the material waste because many 3d printing processes will only add as much material as necessary.

Failing is Cheaper

Okay, I’ll admit it, I made a 3d printed product that failed – and I’ll describe why that’s not really a bad thing.

First, I had an idea for a product.  I’ve lived in Brooklyn, NY for about 10 years and one thing that you notice in New York is that everyone has pride in the neighborhood they live in.  In following with this long tail idea, I wanted to make a set of 3d printed iPhone cases showing an abstract streetscape of each neighborhood.  And I ended making 24 in total.  How many did I sell? Zero. I’ll admit it! They didn’t sell.  Maybe it was an error or laziness in marketing them, but regardless, they didn’t find any buyers.

But that was okay.

As a thought exercise, let’s think about if I had produced these in China.  I would have spent thousands of dollars getting boxes of these produced and they would all be sitting in my apartment.  Instead, I only produced one of each design and photographed them.  I put them online for sale on Shapeways and I tested interest and demand.  It wasn’t there, so I didn’t sink any more effort into it.

These products failed, but it cost me very little to try them out.

3D Printing Disadvantages


Although we have made advancements, and will continue to make advancements in this area, 3D Printing is prohibitively slow.

Price and Economies of Scale

The reason why mass manufacturing works in many instances is because of economies of scale.  The higher the mass quantity of a product that is produced via a conventional mass manufacturing process like injection molding the less that each unit will cost.

Let’s say you are tasked with manufacturing a plastic duck figurine.  If you wanted to use injection molding, there would be significant upfront production costs.  You’d have to create tooling and front other associated costs that could easily be tens of thousands of dollars.  So if you were to use injection molding to make 10 ducks, each unit would be incredibly expensive.   In the case of a small run like this, 3d printing would be a great alternative.

However, if you want to produce 10,000 ducks, 3d printing would likely be way too slow or expensive per unit.  3d printing typically falls short when it comes to making large quantities of an object.  Economies of scale does not work as well for 3d printing.

Material Property Limitations

Although the 3d printing industry is making improvements to material capabilities, there are still significant limitations.  We have more and more options of what materials we can use for 3d printing, but sometimes the available materials may not work.

Firstly, 3d pritning materials may be too costly.  Material costs can be significant and can be one of the main limitations for using 3d printing for a project.

Also, you may need a very specific trait for a material.  Maybe you need a material that is water-tight, food safe, or a material that has certain properties for strength, flexiblity, or opacity.  There are more and more options, but sometimes the materials available to use with 3d printing may not have all the right characteristics that you need.

Resolution/ Surface Finish

If you have a familiarity with 3d printing, you’ll notice that many 3d prints look like they have been 3d printed.  Since with few exceptions, 3d printing is done layer by layer, you will likely have visible layer striations on the surface of a print (depending on the quality of the print.)

Most plastic objects that we encounter are made by injection molding.  This process results in a smooth surface finish.  So when we see 3d prints, they have a different look to them.  This can be a disadvantage if you are looking to print something that has a “finished” look.

Typically, you’ll see layer striations more often on parts with sharp angles like in this picture:

You can also see the difference that print quality can have.

3D printing toy company, Locknesters makes 3d printed puzzles with relatively inexpensive desktop 3d printers, which results in surfaces that are not completely smooth.  To resolve this in post production, they use a multi-step process that involves tumbling the parts (similar to a way in which you would polish jewlery), and then the parts are sanded and given a protective coating.  The results are pretty cool:

Size Constraints

With today’s commercial and desktop 3d printers, there are limitations to the biggest part that you can print.  And because 3d printing is most often charged by volume of material used, an increase in size can lead to an exponential increase in cost.

Most often, you will be limited to objects about the size of a shoebox or smaller.  Some 3d printers specifically address this issue, like the BigRepOne which has a build volume of 1 cubic meter.

One workaround is to print an object in parts and manually assemble, however this does not always lead to ideal results.

Hardware Reliability

Google “failed 3d print” or “makerbot fail” and you’ll see what I mean here.  Basically, not all 3d printers on the market are that reliable.  Over time, they have gotten significantly better, but a 3d printer will have an error much much more than a 2d printer will.

Today, companies are better at offering warranties, but in the not so distant past, 3d printers that were being sold for thousands of dollars, would not offer warranties, which is pretty wild.  Sometimes, they would not work out of the box and had to have some significant DIY type tinkering done to them to dial them in and the user would have to diagnose a series of issues that would inevitably come up.  The fact that a 3d printer may need some tinkering and tuning isn’t so bad in of itself, but it didn’t help that many marketing departments of 3d printing companies had a habit of over promising and under delivering.  In fact, Makerbot was the subject of a class action lawsuit over faulty extruders.  Again, machines are getting better.  But reliability of a 3d printer is very commonly proportional to price, or else you may get prints that look like this: