Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Public awareness of 3D Printing increasing rapidly, but no home 3D printer revolution yet

Public awareness of 3D printing is increasing rapidly. It is only a couple of years since 3D printing hit the front page of The Economist with a story about a 3D printed Stradivarius. A year later, Forbes asked whether 3D printing could revive US manufacturing? These stories and others like them, triggered interest from the mainstream media.

In a recent story by BBC News Magazine, the work of designer Scott Summit and his startup BespokeInnovations was featured in glorious high resolution color photographs. That's usually a sign that a technology may be about to cross the chasm and a much wider public consciousness.

3D printed prosthetic leg fairing
There are parallels with the emergence of the home computer but, as we will see, key differences.

In the late 70s, as the idea of the 'home computer' successfully transferred from the 'enthusiast' market to the mainstream, the focus quickly turned from the 'gadget' to the software applications. The future, as Bill Gates realized, lay in software. Are 3D printers following the same path?

It is no surprise that the BBC story surrounding Scott Summit focussed on something anyone can understand ... not Fused Deposition Modelling, .STL files and G-code ... but the possibility of using the new technology to produce unique 'fairings' to cover and surround existing prosthetic legs. These custom-made products help the wearer return lost contour and at the same time express their personality. The BBC story of this innovation hardly mentioned the 3D printer! We don't know what make it was, nor the technology involved. The media story was all about the application and the human drama.

Recently, MakerBot, the leading provider of hobby 3D printers moved out of the 'kit' market and has decided to focus instead on assembled "Replicator-2" 3D printers for a broader market. This move is also a signal of the trend to greater public awareness for 3D printing, but some are hoping that founder Bre Prettis and his team will also support the huge appetite for parts and kits from the burgeoning Maker communities.

The question is this: Is the scale consumer market for 3D printers those who want a simple reliable device in order to print "stuff", over and over again, or is it the wider and more diverse maker community who are weaving 3D printing into their projects and who are also motivated to boot themselves a 3D printing capability at home via parts, kits and … 3D printing itself. It’s a question of market maturity.

The majority of stories that will grab the public's imagination over the next few years will not be those which can be replicated on a home 3D printer or even via a consumer 3D print bureau such as ShapeWays. The earliest personal computers could run a huge range of quite entertaining software games, pastimes and 'business' applications. New software packages were being released all the time. This both refreshed the appetite for others to buy  a computer, and increased use of the new gadget in the home. The home computer was infinitely more universal than today's 3D printers.

If a consumer-led revolution in 3D printing is coming, its going to be a slower burn. As example: take a look at a state of the art, highly affordable, stereolithography 3D printer, such as the FORM-1. It's very nature (high resolution 3D forms in single-color polymer) pin it down as a near perfect tool for professional 3D designers, but not for consumers. Having amused themselves with its novelty for a few weeks, Joe Public would quickly run of ideas to print.

There is no doubt that public awareness of 3D printing is increasing rapidly, but it is mainly the result of stories about industrial, not consumer, 3D prints. This means that the situation today with 3D printing today is very different from the early years of home computing.
3D printed prosthetic leg fairing 

We stand at an important juncture for 3D printing in consumer markets, and if anyone tells you they know how it is going to turn out, they are probably wrong.

Think about this: can a 3D printing @ home ever be as general purpose as the home computer? Perhaps direct digital manufacturing will remain the preserve of advanced manufacturing firms such as Telsa. Founded by a group of silicon valley investors including Elon Musk, also the founder of Paypal, Telsa use advanced manufacturing techniques to produce the next generation of electric cars.

As this video shows the Telsa Factory is dominated by re-programmable and re-purposable robots. Some claim the factory that Must and his team have built is one of the most advanced in the world. It happens to make electric cars, but it could make almost anything. One type of build-robot employed is provided by KUKA. With six degrees of freedom, they can be re-programmed for almost any task, and a single robot may do many different tasks in a day,  from moving parts around the factory, to metal bending, to assembly, to painting.

The fact that an electric car is simpler than its combustion engine equivalent, coupled to advanced manufacturing, allows Telsa to push customization to the limits for each client. They achieve this by combining re-programmable robotics with other re-purposeable   tools such as advanced laser cutters and CNC machines. Even without 3D 'additive' printers on the Telsa factory floor, the ability of robotic 'subtractive' manufacturing is impressive. Take a look at this video from Daishin Seiki Corporation of a robot cutting a motor cyclists' helmet out of a block of solid aluminium.

The founders of Telsa are no doubt considering the role of 3D printing at the Telsa Factory. Perhaps they will bring in mammoth stereolithography able to produce panels and parts over two meters in length.

As 3D printing is adopted by Telsa and within other advanced direct digital manufacturing sites, the complex, multi-material, composite objects to emerge, with their embedded subsystems, electrics and electronics, will make the average home 3D printer look like a toy!

There is a tangible sense in which home 3D printers may always remain a pale shadow of what is possible in industry. Only time will tell.

Once again, compare this with computing: Today's cloud computing services such as Google, Amazon Web Services and Rackspace are built from the same components (x86 architecture, commodity PC hardware) as your personal laptop, the only difference between one of scale. The computers you have at home are able to run the same software as any Web service or supercomputer. Your laptop is therefore a far more general purpose device then any 3D Printer available, no matter how advanced. This is because a computer operates only in the realm of bits, not atoms. And this is why any consumer-led 3D printing revolution may turn out to be very different to the world-changing events that took place in the late 70s and early 80s.


  1. http://www.technewsdaily.com/6305-3d-printers-computers-homes.html

  2. These are all perfectly valid points, particularly about consumer/home 3D printing being a slow burner! I would just add one point — you have overlooked one of the main advantages that 3D printing brings to the consumer, namely customisation. To maximise this advantage for most consumers though, for the foreseeable future at least, 3d printing will probably need to remain in the hands of experts. Therefore expect to see 3D printshops popping up on the highstreet (it's already happening) to a much greater extent — offering design and 3D print services.

  3. Rachel, thanks for your comment. I agree, 3D printers and printing may remain in the shop, not the home, for some time to come .... other than the 'maker' community of course.