Tinkering at home

Efficient Engineering: Will You Be Downloading 3D-Printed Products Directly from Amazon?

May 11, 2018
Online shopping is already streamlined, presenting anyone who’s trying to start consumer 3D printing at home with many challenges to overcome.

3D printing is becoming more economically accessible. Despite this, we don’t see everyone running out to buy a printer. While some think cost is the main impediment, it’s often competition and knowledge that cause a lag in adoption.

For general mass-produced products, the competition is tough. Online companies are delivering products straight to the consumer’s door in a day or less. While 3D printing might be faster and cheaper, online ordering is ubiquitous. And ordering online doesn’t require the consumer to do anything. While 3D printing is becoming more user-friendly, nozzles still clog and parts still wear. Still, some printer manufacturers boast that users don’t need to do anything but make sure there is filament in the machine. With self-leveling beds, and notifications sent straight to a user’s smartphone, hassle-free does sound possible.

Someone recently asked me how close we are to seeing a shift from online ordering to just downloading products. On a consumer level, there are a few things that will need to happen before we see 3D printing consumer products at home become the norm.

Process Flow

In short, consumers can’t do any additional work. If you need to train consumers or teach them anything, it can be devastating to a product—even a good one. This might encourage a subscription-based 3D printer for the home. If the printer is owned by a manufacturer, or distributor, it would be in that company’s interest to make sure it is continuously working. In addition, filament ordering could be done automatically whenever the printer sends a notification. While this would incur extra cost, the idea is that a consumer would save so much on the products they print, the subscription for the printer and the ability to never have to worry about it might be worth it.

On the show “Shark Tank,” I have seen some good products that didn’t get investments simple due to the necessity of educating the consumer. If a product need to be explained, you have a problem. And for 3D printing at home for consumers, you have a lot of explaining and training. If anything, this could be the single greatest hurdle to overcome—even more that figuring out how to print in thousands of materials.

This would increase the return on investment from having to recover the entire cost of the printer upfront, but is also means a consumer would have to print enough products every month to make this model worth their time. This doesn’t address the lack of space in the U.S. Whether you are in New York City or the country, it seems like storage units are making a good business. This indicates two things: One, we have way too much stuff. Two, there might not be enough space for a 3D printer in a normal consumer’s home. Makers and do-it-yourselfers make space for their tools, but the average person might not even own a hex key outside of the one that came with their IKEA furniture. 

The subscription model does help reduce the level of competency a consumer would need, but there must be some type of added value. Streamlining the whole process would be a necessity. Online companies would have to work a “ship to” or “print” option to streamline the ordering process. Currently the convenience of same day shipping versus having some machine taking up space in someone’s home, limiting the materials used, and other problems will prevent consumers printing products at home.


Brand recognition is important. People will trust a familiar brand. Many of the parts or products to print online are from makers. Companies will have to start branding 3D printing files. This will also mean companies will need to conduct research to see if 3D printing a product could hurt a brand. This could be risky, and currently doesn’t offer much benefit to the company.

Porsche is one company that’s starting to adopt 3D printing. To help its aftermarket, the automaker is focusing on its classic and rare parts that are difficult to get a hold of. Porsche identified 52,000 parts that could breathe life into some of its classic models if there was a way to reproduce parts in a cost-effective, low-volume manufacturing process. 

In addition, companies have part numbers and follow standards. This is important when ordering something, especially if it interacts with something else. Apple even has a certification on its cables. The same data that comes with a normal part will need the same trust that it will work, fit, and operate just like—if not better than—the original shipped part.

Return Policy and Verification

Failed prints seem inevitable. Companies may need to consider a failed print refund. A refund for failed prints will require feedback from the printer to automatically detect a failed part. This could be hackable, but some printers already come with cameras—it’s harder to hack a video. However, this means the consumer must give access to the camera in their printer. Privacy is becoming more of a concern today. Accessing a camera will not be a problem. Like asking for camera access on a smartphone when downloading an app, many people shouldn’t care.

In addition, many parts will not be able to be printed depending on the printer a consumer is using. Open communication is important. Users will need to know what products are able to be printed without having to do any additional work. This verification could be done by the printer itself. It is possible for printers to go online and communicate directly with online stores. This would allow an icon to be seen on products that could be printed, and the shipped versus printed price.

Multiple Materials and Finishing

If all these challenges haven’t made it hard enough, products are often made from multiple materials. Currently, there are printers with this capability, but they are much more expensive compared to a next-day delivery right to your door. These printers are also often patented heavily, so it may be a while until we see competition bring the price down.

The new Markforge carbon fiber printer can produce load-bearing parts that require high strength. In some examples, it is possible to print parts faster and cheaper than machining metal.

Apart from this, 3D-printed parts often need to be finished. While this might only be for aesthetics, looks are as important as branding. A consumer is now given a task to do—a skill to learn—and that is dangerous for a product.

Stereolithography or multi-jet processes might help present a more finished or showroom look finish since they have higher resolution compared to common low-cost printer that use plastic extrusion to build parts. Multi-jetting technology can change material properties. So multi-jet helps aesthetics and some of the problems with multiple materials. Despite this, any finishing worked needed to be performed by a consumer is the nail in the coffin for common mass adoption of printing at home. Unless a company can brand the look and feel of 3D-printed parts to be the cool new thing, we won’t be seeing an Amazon print-at-home option any day soon.

So in the end, 3D printers will stay with the audience of makers and do-it-yourselfers. I will admit, I’ve been wrong before, and who knows if we will see another paradigm shift in the future. When I was in college my professor said that 3D printing is something no one uses and never will, so we never even bothered discussing it in the classroom—I think this was around 2010.

Where Does it Work?

This will reduce some shipping. It might cut down on long-haul shipping, or international shipping that will incur additional fees, tariffs, or taxes. Having some central hub where high-end machines with trained technicians and finishing equipment. Right now, some automotive companies are printing parts. While this is for older high-end parts that might not exist, companies are talking about extending this to potentially be the new way to order parts from your local store.

The new Desktop Metal 3D printer uses powder metallurgy to print quickly and sinter parts in one step. In one example, an impeller was printed using a laser-based printer and the new Desktop Metal. In the time it took the laser based printer to produce 12 parts, Desktop Metal made more than 500.

Metal and plastic printing costs are coming down, and many cars are (to over-simplify) hunks of metal and plastic. Having a designated space and a technician to verify the parts were printed correctly and perform any finishing could work.

In a report titled “3D printing: a threat to global trade,” ing predicts that printing good could cut trade between countries by 40%: “For now it has very little effect on cross-border trade. This will change once high-speed 3D printing makes mass production with 3D printers economically viable. The first technical steps have already been taken…3D printers use far less [labor], reducing the need to import intermediate and final goods from low wage countries.”  

So currently other than some people, makers or do-it-yourselfers, 3D printing will not be a common household item for consumer goods. This will be a growing trend in the commercial industries, especially in the automotive aftermarket. Eventually with companies like 3Dhubs—an online marketplace for you to send your 3D printing file to have them printed and shipped to you—will serve as a testing ground to show when the general population might be ready for a larger adoption in at home printing for common goods.

About the Author

Jeff Kerns | Technology Editor

Studying mechanical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), he worked in the Polymer Research Lab. Utilizing RIT’s co-op program Jeff worked for two aerospace companies focusing on drafting, quality, and manufacturing for aerospace fasteners and metallurgy. He also studied abroad living in Dubrovnik, Croatia. After college, he became a commissioning engineer, traveling the world working on precision rotary equipment. Then he attended a few masters courses at the local college, and helped an automation company build equipment.

Growing up in Lancaster County, PA he always liked to tinker, build, and invent. He is ecstatic to be at Machine Design Magazine in New York City and looks forward to producing valuable information in the mechanical industry. 

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