I need to revise my 3D printing ≠ digital reproduction post, which at the time was meant to balance some optimism surrounding 3D printing. This revision prompted by reading this old opinion piece on why the internet will never be awesome. The piece reads like a point by point outline of every major web 2.0 company to emerge in the past decade. In other words, by spelling out the limitations of the current technology, we actually create the list of business opportunities that can bring the technology to maturity.
So, my complaints about 3D printing are more of a bulleted list on the remaining barriers to the world of free plastic parts for all. The technical challenges are far from insurmountable. Printers like the "Up!" and BFB-3k* printer are already marketed as being almost plug-and-play, and MakerBot is making steady progress toward this goal.
Here is a quick off the top of my head idea of what it takes to make a consumer-ready 3D printer :
- pre-assembled, compact design.
- no open or exposed stages: think microwave oven
- reproducible design so that one calibration file works for the entire line
- proper, reliable stage ( so that the machine can zero itself with 100% reliability )
- streamlined control hardware ( MakerBot doesn't need all of the RepRap circuitry, cutting out the extra components will simplify construction and reduce cost )
- enclosed electronics
- easy to use GUI for printing objects
- critical mass of applications
Even if the technical challenges are solved so that anyone can operate these machines, the question still remains : what are they really good for ? Currently, they are useful to hobbyists as a toy, artists as a new medium, and to a few select people who have been applying them to business. It seems like they might actually be viable in the niche of supplying low numbers of medium strength customized low resolution plastic parts. I may have previously underestimated the size of this niche.