Revised Opinions of 3D Printing

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
In other words, the difference between MakerBot and professional printers is maybe a year's worth of focused engineering to make the existing design highly reliable and low cost. We could have in-home easy 3D printing within a couple years, assuming production of such a device would be profitable. But, the nice thing about MakerBots is they are open source and so don't suffer from some of the backwards incentives of closed-source products. Just think of MakerBot ( at least the older Cupcake models ) as the Altair 8800 of 3D printing : basic, taking weeks or months to build yourself, and nothing works reliably. Hopefully the 3D printer analogue to the Macintosh will surface soon.

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.

*Thanks Mike for the tip.


  1. I think you met Charles at Miters

    Here is his take on the makerbot. It is beatiful

  2. Thanks for posting that,if only all of us worked in the media lab and had access to the waterjet.

  3. Thank you for this great post. Maybe I've been to harsh on 3D printers, certainly Cliff Stoll seems very dated these days. But I think 3D printing will take a quantum leap towards usefulness when we can print circuit elements integrally with the plastic body. What do you estimate that will take?

    ((also like the covers for the sun, safety first))

  4. That's a different lamp, but if scaled up I guess it might be useful as a cover for the sun.

  5. Have you seen the Bfb 3000? http://www.bitsfrombytes.com/content/bfb-3000-0 It does seem to address some of your points, especially in terms of an enclosed design.

    I think your last two points are going to be the most difficult to achieve. For me currently, most of the work that goes into actually printing something is on the software side. Tweaking skeinforge settings is an annoyance, but just getting a model to printworthy shape can be a daunting task. It is tempting to think that you can just download one of the many free 3D models on the internet and print it, but in reality most are unsuitable without extensive editing. Apparently even Google sketchup models are easy to make non-manifold and unprintable.

    If you are designing your own things to print, it is less of an issue, especially if you use software that deals with solids rather than polygon meshes (like OpenSCAD right?). But it seems like there is no 3D modeling software that is both free and easy to use (in particular, I became very frustrated with Blender very fast). Alibre used to have a very capable free version, but they decided they'd be better off charging $99 for it and removing useful import/export formats.

    As for critical mass of applications, I took that to mean a lot of interesting things to print. I think it will take a while to get there. As much as I like Thingiverse, there just aren't that many things on there that would compel the average person to try 3D printing.

    Unfortunately, I think what it's going to take is some big company to integrate the software and hardware into one proprietary solution. To the point where you could literally click on an image on a website and have your 3D model ready minutes/hours later. Most likely with a fee per model, restrictive (attempt at) DRM, and extremely expensive build material in a cartridge. But the quantity and quality of easily printable models will explode as a result.

    I think an easy/quick face scanner could be a "killer app" as well. People love to print out models of faces, especially as mashups with other models. Maybe not hardware that you would have to buy, but either software that works with existing webcams or something like a kiosk at the mall. Instead of pictures of your friends, you could have their heads on your desk! (creepy...)

    (I'm Zomboe on Thingiverse, by the way)

  6. Great point, Mike! Objectively, faces aren't any more useful than other plastic trinkets, but they speak to a common human need.

    On E's point about better 3D printer: (http://humanityplus.org/gadaprize/). Basically, two years and $20,000 for what appears to be order of magnitude improvement in cost and ease of use.

    From my point of view, prizes are not great funding mechanisms: any team already has to have $$$ lying around, most likely in excess of the prize award, but they can do a good job attracting public attention to a task (see DARPA Grand Challenge, Ansari X Prize). But this needs more money ($100,000 minimum) and some mainstream attention.

    3D print experts, do you think anybody has a shot at the Gada prize?

  7. Thanks for the tip on that printer. Do you think it is reliable and simple enough for someone with no technical background to operate ?

    I use OpenSCAD, but many of my models take hours to render. I think this is a bug. I've never used google sketchup, its much easier for me to define objects programmatically.

    When I think of applications, I am thinking of things that make design easier. Maybe not general purpose design, but little "Apps" that present a GUI for some parameterized design.

    This could probably be implemented using OpenSCAD, some scripting, and a TCL interface, ( though TCL is ugly compared to modern interfaces ). What we really want its like KidPix simple.

    Theres also some sort of web-based design program soon to be released ?

    ( I'm mrule on thingiverse. also, zomboe = one of the many Mikes of darbnet, irrc ? )

  8. last I checked, that 3D printer prize was considered impossible and not worth the prize money. But, I unsubscribed from the 3D printing lists months ago because they were too addicting.

    Also Biff, there is a LaTeX plugin running that uses dollar-signs to denote inline equations. I'm not sure how to work around this.

  9. *double dollar sign

  10. with regards to printing a conductor :
    Printing a conductor is a bad idea. PCB design is so refined and production so optimized, it would be a poor design choice to try to do any circuitry. Anyone smart enough to design a PCB knows how to make it: you can mill it or etch it or use BatchPCB for a cheap professional quality board. At first, anything you'd 3D print would be worse than all of the above. I could make circuit boards before I could 3D print. The delta between at home fabbing of PCBs and mass production of PCBs is low, not at all like the delta between MakerBot and injection molding costs. "Unitary object" is another way of saying "lack of modularity", which makes recycling harder and goes against sustainability initiatives. Arduino is the solution, basically. A handful of flexible boards that you add and recombine in different projects. Even with 3D circuit printing I'd still be for making the board a separate component from the object. Modularity increases your ability to repair and service an object and separating out the pure plastic parts simplifies recycling, both of these are important for a closed loop economy.

    With regards to business applications of 3D printing :
    shapeways is a good business model, but once people have local access to shapeways quality 3D printers, it becomes cheaper and faster for them to pirate designs. DRM will be impossible. The natural solution would just be to pay a small license fee to the content creators, much like the 99¢ payed to the Apple music store. A voluntary system using Flattr seems to be in place at thingiverse, but as far as I can tell cash is mostly flowing internally within the site and leaking away to flattr. I'd say PayPal might be fine, but I'll never use them again if I have the choice after what happened with Wikileaks.

  11. Bits from Bytes seems to target the education market a lot more than the other 3D printer companies, so I'm guessing the BfB 3000 is pretty easy to use. High school students use them, though I suppose they have help from teachers. Reliability is a good question.

    As for applications, have you ever played Spore? It features a very easy to use creature creator that even has support for exporting a 3D model. There are also building and vehicle creators, and a way to share designs online. I think something like that, designed to make models that are easy to print, would be very useful.

    Second Life also has easy to use tools for creating objects from primitives. It's possible to use OGLE to capture 3D models from the game, though I imagine it's quite a hassle to get them into printable shape.

    I think the major motivation for investigating conductor printing is to improve the replication fraction of RepRap. I certainly agree with you that it is inefficient. But at the same time, I can appreciate the desire to make a self replicating machine, regardless of the trade-offs.

    I don't know a lot about electronics, so for me it would be a question of cost. Supposedly it's possible to build a Prusa Mendel for about $500, and fully $200 of that is the electronics (assembled). So I think there is a lot of room for improvement, and maybe printing your own electronics would help, or maybe the complete opposite (mass production) is the solution.

    One thing about Shapeways is that they are able to offer printing technologies that don't (currently?) scale down, such as laser sintered metal. Maybe someday I will see what it would cost to get a Thing1 printed in stainless steel. Or even glass.

    For the price of a 3D printer, you could use Shapeways to print a lot of small, very detailed models. But considering all of your large, very cool objects made from modular pieces, I'm sure you've more than broken even by now!

    Forrest Higgs has often remarked that a major benefit he sees in having your own printer is the ability to make a change in your model and very quickly have the result in your hand. In that sense, it is going back to the original use of 3D printers for rapid prototyping.

    I guess it goes back to the consumer vs. creator (or "maker", as the trend seems to be) mentality. It seems to me that right now, 3D printers are most useful to the latter group. I'd be very interested in seeing Thingiverse statistics such as average number of things uploaded per user.

    I'm also really curious about how much money people are making through Flattr. It's interesting that the Flattr counter doesn't tell you anything about how much money is actually being given. It's more of a enhanced Like button that you have to pay to use. I wonder if that social aspect is enough for it to become popular.

    (Yeah, I'm Michael Owens, though I mostly lurk on Darbnet. I just want to say it is very impressive how quickly you've gone from troubleshooting your Makerbot to creating some awesome things, mrule!)