3D Printing – Collision Course?

by Joseph Flaherty on July 4, 2009

Will the first mass market 3D printer be an offering from an existing manufacturer like Objet, Zcorp, or Stratasys? An upstart like Makerbot? Or an open source project like Fab@Home? The Fabbaloo blog posed this question recently and while the answer is unclear I think the winner will be the company or group who designs a killer app and builds their printer around it. You could give a million families a 3D printer tomorrow and few, if any, would have any idea what to do with it. 3D printing technology is going to be severely limited for a number of product generations. Instead of trying to build a machine that can make anything, 3D printer manufacturers with an eye on consumers should think about designing a system that builds one kind of thing really well. Currently 3D printers are limited by material science constraints, mechanical hardware limitations, and designer input. A task specific 3D printer would help:

Simplfy Materials – Plastics are complex and current 3D printer technology can’t hope to match the variety of material properties possible with processes like injection molding (though the new Objet Connex 500 is getting closer). Find an application or set of them and build around that.

Simplfy Processes – The designers of the Makerbot made a smart decision to move the devices build platform rather than print head because it simplified the design. This was balanced by the fact that the build platform is fairly small, but their audience are bleeding edge enthusiasts, not model shops. Their customers want to make an object and size is somewhat irrelevant. If you were building a 3D printer for a specific task, what other efficiencies could you find?

Simplify Input – This isn’t a problem with the 3D printers as much as its ecosystems that surround them. If a 3D printer was specialized, CAD programs could be built around it. Task specific CAD programs would make it easier for enthusiastic hobbyists to start printing things rather than struggling to learn a complex tool like SolidWorks. For example, a specialized CAD program could enable easy design of RC car parts or model train components.

Most 3D printers are used to streamline the product development process, hidden in workshops and service bureaus they help shape the design, but don’t create the final article. The few that are used in final manufacturing don’t try to do too much. Jewelry and dental implant businesses are two of the leading users of 3D printing in end-use manufacturing and they are highly constrained machines. They print in wax, at small scale, and fit into existing manufacturing processes. They are more like evolutionary hammers than Star Trek replicators. As Joris Peels from Shapeways astutely noted, mass customization of clothing is possible today in the form of sewing machines, but mainstream retailers feel no pressure from amateur seamstresses.  I am sure that we will see a “Prosumer” 3D printer soon, something akin to the Craftsman Compucarve CNC mill or the Brother Quattro CNC embroidering machine. Ultimately, I don’t think there is going to be a collision or a “winner” as much as a branching into different niches. Just as motors power leaf blowers and tractor trailers I think 3D printing will similarly influence a number of industries.

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