The 3D printer MakerBot prints a red hand model during an event from the senate administration on 3D printing and cyber security in Berlin, Germany, 14 July 2016.
Image: Christian Platz/AP Images

I blame Pokmon Go for the frustration that took a good chunk of my work week. Well, Pokmon Go and 3D printers.

Let me back up.

On Monday, my colleague Raymond Wong posted a story about a 3D-printed Pokdex. Its awesome. Maybe one of the most awesome things Ive ever seen. Because Mashable HQ has a 3D printer, Ray and I thought it would be fun to print one for ourselves.

How wrong we were. Instead of getting a cool case for our iPhones, all we got was a lot of headache. So much headache, in fact, that Im now more convinced than ever that 3D printers for regular people will never become a thing.

This was what we wanted to build. Spoiler: We were not successful

The promise of a 3D printed future

A few years ago, 3D printers were all the rage. Countless Kickstarter projects and high-valued startups promised us that one day and one day soon wed be able to 3D-print tchotchkes and tools in our own homes.

3D printers remain a complicated, gigantic pain in the ass to use correctly.

The idea would be you could find a 3D model for something on Thingiverse and then essentially replicate it for yourself. This was going to be big business.

And then, the business stagnated. Last year, MakerBot one of the leaders in the consumer 3D printer industry laid off 20% off its staff, not once, but twice.

Despite being acquired by a publicly traded 3D-printing company, and despite lots of hype, MakerBot has struggled to make good on the flashy sales pitch it had when the company launched back in 2009: To make 3D printing ubiquitous.

Analysts have often cited size and expense as a major reason 3D printers haven’t taken off in homes the way many expected they would by now. But I have a bigger, more important reason: 3D printers remain a complicated, gigantic pain in the ass to use correctly.

A tale of 3D-printed failure

I should note that many of the problems Ray and I ran into in attempting to 3D-print a Pokdex were probably, at least partially, our own fault.

Mistakes were almost certainly made in our setup process that a more skilled, careful person would not have committed.

I don’t want to blame the 3D printer we used (which was a MakerBot Replicator 2 and thus, a few years old), but I do want to discuss a little bit of the challenges we faced in our six failed attempts to 3D-print the Pokdex.

The first challenge was getting the 3D file from GitHub to work with our 3D printing software. The file was distributed in a Sketchup format, which our 3D printer doesn’t natively read.

That meant installing an extension to convert the file into a format the printer’s software could process. That’s not a huge deal, but it took an extra 10 minutes out our lives. Remember when getting the exact right driver for your 2D printer was a thing? It was like that.

Our failed attempts at Pokdex printing

Image: christina warren/mashable

Then, the problem was trying to get the printer to print the file. We put the file on a SD card, only for the printer to reject the card with a “read error.” Assuming the capacity of the card might be too high, we tried a smaller card. Same problem.

It turns out, the 3D printer we used only works with cards formatted using the FAT16 file format. Granted, we could have read the instructions first, but in 2016, what type of device still uses a format as old as me and older than Ray? I mean, FAT32 is seriously 20 years old.

Because we didn’t find out about the file format issue until later, we were stuck connecting a laptop to the printer to print from that. This would prove problematic in attempt number five.

Once we got the file to print, the process seemed to be on the right track.

At first.

Our first few aborted attempts at making a Pokdex

Image: christina warren/mashable

Because 3D printing takes a long time, it’s not the sort of activity most people can actively watch. It’s more of a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. Ray and I made a point to check in on our Pokdex every 30 minutes or so. Early on, everything looked like it was progressing correctly.

But soon, it became apparent that something was wrong. Our spool of filament kept getting tangled and, as a result, the printed object would often end up in a mess of plastic filament and sadness.

With 3D printing, if something goes wrong, you don’t really have the option of pausing, fixing an issue and resuming. You have to start over, wasting whatever time and material was already invested in the object.

Our first four attempts. My favorite is attempt number 4, which is at the top and is literally just strings of filament.

Image: mashable/christina warren

We did everything we could to detangle the filament spool, but short of hand-feeding the machine the plastic, it wasn’t going to work.

After four attempts (which, in retrospect, was two attempts too many), we finally decided to switch to a different spool of filament. Later on, a kind representative from MakerBot suggested the same thing.

This worked better. At first.

Our fifth attempt at 3D printing was well underway when the file crashed inside the 3D printer software. We were 88 percent through, and bam. Our Pokmon dreams were dashed.

Attempt number five. It still would have been too small but at least it looked like a Pokdex. Sadly, the software seized 88% through the print.

Image: christina warren/mashable

In retrospect, that was a good thing because it turned out we scaled the file to a size that was too small for our iPhone anyway. (I told you, mistakes were made.)

Our final attempt before accepting failure was almost successful. We were ultimately thwarted by the fact that the design we were trying to print was slightly too large for our 3D printer’s platform. If we had taken more time, we may have attempted to separate the project into multiple files and then rotated it to fit on the platform.

We didn’t.

And so after three days and six attempts and probably close to 24 hours of time on the 3D printer, we accepted defeat.

Attempt number six. The cover looked OK, but the section for the phone was clearly not going to work because the object was too larger for the platform. After this attempt, we admitted failure.

Image: mashable/christina warren

The guy who made the original Pokdex is talking about mass-producing them for people to buy. That seems like a much better use of my time and energy. (Plus that way, I might be able to get it in red. Team Valor forever.)

No regular person is ever going to bother with 3D printers

As I said, I admit that significant mistakes were made in my 3D-printing misadventure. Ray and I should have done a better job reading instructions, should have probably figured out the filament issue earlier and certainly should have thought more about the size problem.

This stuff is too complicated for tech-savvy people, let alone normals.

But you know what, the fact that all of those things have to be done to successfully 3D print something proves that this technology is just not ready for regular people.

I’m a very tech-savvy person. I’m great with gadgets and have been taking stuff apart and putting them back together for as long as I can remember. But the 3D printer is too much effort for me. I’m sure if I dedicated the right amount of time and attention to it, I could make it work.

For me, my time is ultimately more valuable and I think I would just opt to buy something pre-built anyway.

But the pipe dream that every house will have a 3D printer that will be one-touch simple that’s not going to happen. And what about someone like my mom? Forget about it. This stuff is too complicated for tech-savvy people, let alone normals.

And if you ask me, that’s why the 3D-printing revolution has stalled at least in the home space. I fully expect commercial and educational usage of 3D printers to soar. But for regular people? Hell. No.

Save us, Amazon

Personally, I think the ship for mainstream 3D printers has probably sailed. Kind of like 3D TVs, the idea seems appealing until you actually have to deal with it.

But then, I thought the same thing about the smart home. And then Amazon came out with the Echo and the entire category was rejuvenated.

Amazon succeeded in a space where Apple, Google and Alphabet’s Nest has all failed to really make a mark. Why? Because the Echo is dead-simple to use. It’s awesome. I got my mom an Echo for Mother’s Day. She loves it.

Which is to say if 3D printers do have a shot of actually making it in homes amongst regular people and not just enthusiasts, we need a company like Amazon to come at the space.

Maybe if Jeff Bezos made a 3D printer, I’d have a Pokdex by now.

Instead, I’m stuck with this:

Six failed Pokdex 3D printer attempts

Image: christina warren/mashable

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