Remember a few years ago when 3-D printers were all the rage? I do and I'll admit I found myself caught up in all the hype. As an architect the appeal was obvious: every project I do is developed as a computer model and it would be great to hit "print" and have a physical model magically appear. This was a potential game-changer in terms of producing study models for our internal use and presentation models for our clients.
And so in 2014 after months of research I ordered a fifth generation MakerBot Replicator, the most expensive doorstop I have ever owned. From the beginning there were issues: the first time I started up the machine the build plate chewed up the ribbon cable that connected the extruder to the rest of the printer. I had to return the entire printer to the manufacturer. Weeks later after it was repaired a series of “smart” extruders were constantly clogging and each one also had to be returned to the manufacturer. I was not alone in my troubles: the issues were so large that MakerBot became embroiled in a class action lawsuit over the quality-control issues that plagued the rollout of their fifth generation printer.
Meanwhile I was trying to run a business. Although I knew there would be a learning curve involved in becoming proficient in the use of this new tool, there came a point where it became increasingly difficult to justify tinkering with the system that seemed incapable of producing a usable print. Although I produced a few study models that I was able to share with a client, it remained a novelty more than anything else.
In speaking with other firms that had made a similar investment it seems they typically have an intern or other employee dedicated to tinkering with the printer to nurse usable prints out of the system. As a small office those were resources I simply did not have available. Increasingly the printer sat unused and I finally decided to sell it on Craigslist before it lost all value. I was eventually able to sell it to a concrete counter fabricator out of Austin for a sixth of what I originally paid for it.
Being an early adopter of a technology always carries risks. Sometimes that risk pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. The drone I invested in, for example, proved to be an incredibly tool. The 3D printer was not. Someday the technology may deliver on its promise of revolutionizing the design and construction industries, but that day is not today.