Thoughts on the current and future state of 3D printing
Over on the Make blog, Dale Dougherty asked the question “How many people will own 3D printers?” I posted a comment there, and I’ve expanded it a bit for this post.
In my view, 3D printers as they currently exist will remain tools for industry, hobbyists & makers. There are 4 things needed for them to break out as mainstream products:
1. Ease of use: current printers are finicky, requiring too much adjustment and have too high a printing failure rate. But the biggest impediment is the software. 3D design software is too complex, and the tool chain from design to print is too cumbersome. Simple design software, and a “print” button that looks after the rest, will be needed before these become household items.
2. Colour: current 3D printed items are boring. Printing custom bobble heads & action figures of your friends & family would be fun, but the painting required makes it too laborious. The ability to print colour items would greatly enhance 3D printer’s desirability. This can be through multi-colour, multi-printhead designs, or by using a combination of 3D printing and inkjet printing to “paint” objects during or after the print process. Alternatively, heat shrink colour printed skins can be made to put over objects, similar to the advertising wraps you see applied to cars, trucks & buses.
3. Simple, inexpensive, high quality 3D scanners: following on point 1, design software is complicated. If you have a broken part that you want to replace, it would be much easier to scan & print rather than try to design a replica in software. Scaling is also a reason for scanning – you have an object you want to replicate, but at twice the size, or half the size. Scan, resize, print. Or for customization – scan, modify, print.
4. Adoption of “designed for 3D printing”: this could, in my estimation, drive 3D printing more than anything. Think of the inconvenience and expense of the parts inventories held by companies & repair shops around the world. When a replacement part for a vacuum or a car is needed, you often find yourself paying a ridiculous price for the part, and/or waiting an inordinate time for it to come in. With current products, 3D printing can’t change this much, as most parts can’t be readily reproduced at sufficient quality. But what if product designers took this into account. What if a car company actively designed its cars so that as many parts as possible could be 3D printed. Dealerships & repair shops could install high quality 3D printers, and maintain a digital inventory of spare parts, which would be printed on demand for customers. No more waiting for parts, no more investing millions in spare part inventory and parts distribution systems. From there, one can see a progression to the home. Products that are sold can be designed for 3D printed part replacement. Just as you now can go on most manufacturer’s websites & download instruction manuals, you could go on their sites and download files to 3D print parts. Print the replacement part yourself at home, or take it to your local Kinko’s, Staples, or other 3D print shop. Companies could make these parts file downloads available for free, or charge a small fee for the download. In most cases, the 3D design files will already exist, as the product was probably originally designed this way. Many may think that companies won’t follow this path – they profit from expensive parts & built-in obsolescence, and hope you give up on repair & simply buy a new item. There may be many who will think this way. But there will be companies who will see “design for 3D printing” as a strategic advantage. They can market their goods as easily repairable, and green, in that they are not as likely to end up in landfill because of a small broken part.
I expect a market will also develop for “framework” products designed with 3D printing in mind. You buy the core component (electronics, mechanics, etc.) with the idea that you can 3D print the rest to customize your product. Buy the workings for a camera, 3D print the case to perfectly fit your hand. Or a case that moulds to your ski helmet. Just as clock mechanisms have been available for woodworkers, mechanisms for all sorts of products will be available for 3D printer owners. This market may be niche, but with the internet enabling both product discovery, marketing and commerce, niche can now be a viable business model.
The earliest hobby computers had toggle switches & blinked lights. They were of interest to a very small group who wanted to learn how they functioned, and who were fascinated by the process of building, programming, and making it work. Few people could see any reason why they’d want one. Using one as a calculator, requiring conversion to/from binary? Not a mainstream application, but it was the beginning. That’s the point we’re at with 3D printers today. They are difficult to use, and accomplish underwhelming tasks. We don’t yet have a VisiCalc for 3D printers. But I’m confident we will, and that 20 years from now, we’ll be doing things with our home 3D printers that today we’ve not even thought about.