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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Monday, 23 January 2012

3D Printing: "We're in this time - where it's the beginning!"

I hope Bre Pettis of Makerbot doesn't mind me quoting him for the title of this post. I was watching the CNET video, again, of his and Cathy Lewis' joint interview (face-off actually), which was hosted during the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Bre delivered this line towards the end of the 17 minute video, which I would recommend, and it struck a chord, because I have been saying much the same thing in a bid to counter the hype surrounding 3D printing. The excitement, the promotion and the evangelising are all great to see as the 3D printing mantra spreads, these are staples of my daily existence, but the hype needs to be neutralised — by reason and by reality.

The CNET video can be viewed here: http://cnettv.cnet.com/future-3d-printing/9742-1_53-50118533.html

Above and beyond the fantastic fact that both 3D Systems and Makerbot were extremely visible on the show floor at CES, getting hoards of visitors together with a great deal of press attention, remains the grounding fact that we are, indeed, just at the beginning. 2012 is going to be another exciting year for the 3D printing sector — but it will not be the year that millions of consumers will put a 3D printer onto their 'to buy' lists. I've documented the reasons why in previous posts, and comments on other people's posts. But we are edging closer. Makerbot and 3D Systems are, in no small way, contributors to this movement forwards. While they have the media's attention, it is important to stress that they are not the only companies doing great things with and for 3D printing, but they do personify the trends that are emerging.

For many years I have expounded the divergence in the 3D printing / Additive Manufacturing sector, visible from those two terms - the personal manufacturing vision with 3D printing versus the industrial vision with additive manufacturing. The chasm between these two application areas is increasing all of the time, and rightly so. Consumer products, whether practical or decorative, designed for 3D printing with consumer-enabled customisation, will flourish and thrive and savvy creative individuals are already creating businesses based on this model. There are many, but a nice example that springs to mind, is Michiel Cornelissen (@michiel_ontwerp), a designer with a range of jewellery on Shapeways' website, who tweeted recently: "My monthly @shapeways payments are beginning to look suspiciously like an income. [the] 3D printing economy is here."

But while this consumer facing model is expanding, almost daily it seems, with creatives such as Michiel, validating the 3D printing possibilities of today, the industrial users of additive manufacturing are going from strength to strength also. And, I am sure this will continue, because regardless of whether personalised manufacturing becomes a reality or not, consumers, en masse, are unlikely to ever make their own cars, aeroplanes, medical devices / equipment, and national defence equipment etc. Nor should they, IMO. This needs qualified, experienced and informed manufacturing companies that are subjected to rigorous testing standards and security.  Incidentally, it is this differentiation that will also come into play on the fractious issue of firearms, I believe. Off on a bit of a tangent here, but there are voices that claim that personalised 3D printing is  bad because it means that criminals and terrorists can design and build whatever they need to carry out their villainy. I'm not buying this! There is evil in this world, there has been from the beginning of time and there will be until the end of time, and the perpetrators of such evil find a way through the barriers of civilised society, I don't think 3D printing will enable or disable them more or less than they are now, to be frank.

And back to the main thread — where we have individual creative makers and small start ups versus different industry sectors, all making different grades of additive technology work for them. Right now, it is happening and the market is growing steadily.

The claims for the future potential of 3D printing as a mass consumer technology is also stregthening. I am a (100%) believer, have been for years, but it's a while away yet. Broken record, I know, but I do have to keep saying it — it is not just around the corner, hence the title of the post. My bet is placed on 15-20 years, maybe longer. In the meantime, what watching the CNET video did clarify for me is the very different approaches to achieving this goal. On the one side we have the corporate giant with structure, IP and implemented strategy to attain corporate goals and on the other the passion and inspiration of a community leader, for who, it has to be said, 3D printing is a way of life. Only this morning, Deelip Menezes, commented to me that the video highlights the huge difference in the target audience of the two printers. I can't agree — both Cathy and Bre were at pains to convey that their respective printers were for "everyone". They both have the same target audience — EVERYONE. The difference, apart from the machines themselves, is how they talk to them, convince them and convert them to using 3D printers.

Currently, to use a 3D printer, you need technical knowledge — to design for it, to set it up, to make it run properly and to keep it running properly. This is a fact, and anyone that says different is hyping up the technology or process they are talking about. Part of the current appeal for creative users of 3D printing that are also tagged as makers, hackers and so forth is the technology itself, and making it work for them. I see this as an interim stage, that will co-exist with the later stage of consumer use. But for consumers to use this technology en masse what is required, apart from the documented plug and play usability, improved materials and lower capital cost, is a social change. This won't happen quickly. It needs education, which will breed know-how and familiarity across a couple of generations. Only then will 3D printing truly filter through to everyone.


  1. Just look at the two machines and tell me with a straight face that they are being targeted to the same people. ;-)

    Come on, Rachael.

  2. "to use a 3D printer, you need technical knowledge", isn't it the same with any tool / equipment ?

    I think many people learned their lesson trying to print their colour pictures at home... expensive and crappy most of the times! Therefor they now print their pictures on-line or using dedicated machines in stores.

    as for 3d printing, the entry price will act as a gatekeeper, the equipment will stay expensive, the material (petrol based) will cost more.

    what is great is the possibilty of the 3d printer for everyone, and the creative mind it suppose.

  3. Deelip: I don't deny that the Cube "looks" good, and I have gone on record saying that it "looks" like a consumer product. But, at the end of the day, looks aren't everything, and it's what is going on 'under the hood' that matters! In the current market for personal 3D printers, it's the capabilities that will sell more than the aesthetics. I am not saying that won't change. Capability wise, the Makerbot is more on a par with the 3D Touch at the moment.

  4. Rachel correctly makes the point that to use a 3D printer still requires quite a bit of technical knowledge and know-how regardless of whether it is a Cubify or Makerbot. To get people in the door for a further look, Makerbot design/form factor embraces this. Cubify, like a wolf in sheep's clothing, minimizes it. But ultimate purchasers are probably pretty similar: tech-savy early adopters. Right now though it's still just a question of how to market a clunky, imperfect technology.

    The more significant question is what will lead to broader adoption, and how and when that might happen. One source of difficulty is content creation. Although 3D CAD is ahead of 3D printing, outside of a small cadre of creative/artistic people, design paradigms are not. Most industrial design is still done with traditional fabrication in mind. The complex geometries that are only possible through additive fabrication are just not in most engineers/designers heads when they conceptualize. Perhaps 3D printing will only be heavily adopted when we have more (useful) products which can ONLY be produced through additive fabrication.

    Can this generation of engineers/designers change the way they think? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Maybe, maybe not I guess. If not, then marketing to kids with things like Cubify and TinkerCad might be the best thing for the 3D printing industry as we teach a new generation a new way of thinking. Unfortunately this would also support the idea Rachel puts forth that we probably won't see true mainstream adoption for 15-20 years.

  5. You hit the nail on the head. Makerbot should be compared to the 3D Touch, not the Cube.

    And you are right. It's not just the looks that will sell the Cube or any other real consumer printer. A lot depends on what a consumer is expected to know or do before he gets his first 3D print. How much he needs to mess around with the device? Does he need to in the first place? Does everything just work out of the box?

  6. Exactly - that's what I was getting — it needs to be plug & play. Like a computer or a 2D printer, or a car even. For mass appeal, the consumer needs to be able to buy a 3d printer that will print what said consumer buys it to print; with minimal knowledge of how & why. I can work my computer, I can (usually) work my printer and I can drive my car — but I am not an IT technician or a mechanic. That's how I envision mass consumers using 3D printers eventually. Incidentally, for the record, I don't think that they will look or print the way they do now!

  7. "Incidentally, for the record, I don't think that they will look or print the way they do now!"

    That's why comparisons of Cubify and the Apple Macintosh are off. The Mac had the form we still use today: desktop cpu, keyboard, monitor, gui. It's hard to imagine 3D printing really taking off as slow, CNC-type extrusion.

  8. The market of course is not "everyone". The printers make things, so the market will be anyone who likes to make stuff. I think the analogy to printing photos is a good one, which is something I never attempt myself. It is so much easier to take a jump drive to the self serve printer at the pharmacy. Some of them let you upload your photos through their web site, and then go pick up the prints at the store. For the general population, I think that would be the best model, especially for the multi-material, consumer grade finishes that they would expect.

    For printers at home, I think the right retail outlet is not Best Buy, but the big hardware stores, next to the table saw, drill press, $500 home CNC machines and laser cutters. The person who in the past downloaded plans for making a nice wooden box with a decorative inlaid top using their table saw and routing table, will in the future download STL and DXF files to make something using wood, plastic, etched acrylic, LEDs and electronics.

    The 3D printer is a unique tool in its ability to create a finished object by itself, and makes it easier to get started making stuff because you don't need a suite of tools to complete your first project. However the kind of objects and the quality it can produce for push button users will always be limited compared to users with more technical knowledge.

    Some users will learn design, figure out how to calibrate their machines, and understand the properties of the materials well enough to tweak the settings for the best quality. There are already millions of them in basement woodshops today. Tomorrow their workshops will be computer controlled, and they are the real market for consumer 3D printers. It's more niche than "everyone" but still very mainstream.

  9. Ian: apart from your very first sentence, I don't disagree with anything you say. To qualify that, I think that your comments are spot on for the medium term vision of 3D printing, and that the main mass consumer interface for the technology will be 3rd parties either by internet/mail order or the FabLab model. This demands a much greater investment in design/customisation software still.

    In the longer term, MUCH longer term, I do believe that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the manufacturing paradigm completely, and enable local manufacturing, at home, for parts and products that are currently mass produced remotely — the market being everyone. Essentially it is my belief that nano technology, specifically the development of nano materials in conjunction with 3D printing (not in its current form) that will unlock this capability.