Today I am heading to Washington DC together with an impressive
collection of the who-is-who in the 3D printing industry in the US.
Shapeways is - amongst others - joined by Makerbot, 3D Systems,
Fab@Home and Makergear for the Public Knowledge 3D/DC convention.
The Public Knowledge 3D/DC convention is organized to give US policymakers a peak inside the 3D printing
revolution which starts to happen. In the book "Where Good Ideas
Comes From" Steven Johnson makes a great case that any disruptive
technology revolution takes about 2 decades to go from invention to
mainstream. 3D printing has been around for quite some years and we
are well into the second decade. You could argue that this
disruption is of a bigger scale than for instance HD television or
the fax machine and it will take more time. I think we just past the
'second decade'. The next decade has the potential to change the
world on a scale of which we have not seen since the internet going
mainstream in the late nineties. It makes me wonder if we will get a
3D printing / making bubble similar to the dot-com bubble?
Any major technology disruption comes with pain because business
models change and existing businesses need to adapt. Incumbent
industries unwilling to change will resist. Just look what happened
to the music and media industry and the advent of the internet, mp3
and ipods. The same will apply to 3D printing. Just imagine people
copying, extending or modifying existing products to make them
better or last longer. Are you allowed to reverse-engineer your car
engine and improve parts of the engine? And what about giving the
design to a friend? Or maybe start selling it (at cost) at the auto
club? Or maybe offer it for sale commercially?
Putting the negative aspects aside 3D printing brings enormous
potential. It allows to bring manufacturing back to the Western
world. The trend to move manufacturing to low cost countries can be
reversed. It does not make sense to custom build 3D printed products
in China and ship them over on a slow boat. It can happen right here
and preferably close to the customer. Operating 3D printers is
relatively easy and do not require a lot of manual labor compared to
the output of these machines. Just imagine major manufacturing hubs
in big cities like New York, London and Berlin. It will create jobs
and creates knowledge which we lost.
3D printing also brings a new set of options for creative people. No
longer are creatives bound by the digital domain or their own
craftsmanship on analog tools. 3D printing makes it possible to
directly from digital design to analog forms without manual
intervention. Just take a look on Shapeways what artists like
Nervous Systems are already creating.
It also shortens the product design cycle since products can be
created and produced in one-off production runs. Designs can be
adapted and retested in matter of days. It allows for design to be
changed during its life cycle without much effort. Entrepreneurs can
go from an idea or invention to something they can show investors in
a very short time. Production can start in a moment's notice and
product can be shipped to customers. In this way 3D printing will
give a huge boost to entrepreneurship in a similar way the internet
and open source software has done. It just does not take huge
investments, long lead times and significant risk taking to bring a
new product to the market. A great example is the Glif,
which was prototyped and launched using Shapeways.
Governments of the Western world should realize there are great
opportunities in advancement and commoditization of 3D printing. It
bring back manufacturing and will promote creativity and
entrepreneurship. Making will again be a craft and not a mechanical
and highly optimized mass production process. And 3D printing will
make this possible.
I was fortunate enough to attend this event. It was awesome to see and meet so many big names in the business, all in one room. There has never been a gathering of so many names in 3d printing all in one place. I was able to have 20-30 minute one-on-one conversations with company presidents, CEOs, founders, as well as members of other hackerspaces. I’m the Vice president of the hackerspace in Baltimore, the Baltimore Node, and members from Reverse Space, the hackerspace in Herndon, VA, HacDC of course, Anderson Ta from the MIT FabLab at CCBC Catonsville, and the guy who runs Metrix Createspace which is in Seattle, WA.
Bathsheba’s nice metal prints were sitting on an unguarded table, so I squatted a corner and spread out a collection of jewelry and other items I’ve designed an printed. Cathy Lewis, the CEO of 3D systems noticed them and we got to talking. Our conversation was unique because of each of our roles in the industry. She is at the top of a 160 million dollar company, and I’m at the bottom, using their products. Her focus is making the machines, and mine is using them. We talked about the future of 3d printers, and she was interested in seeing and holding the designs I had brought with me.
Dave ten Have, the CEO and founder of Ponoko, talked to me about the business, and we compared cities, culture and crime of West Oakland, CA, Wellington, New Zealand and Baltimore, Flight of the Conchords vs The Wire, and travel in general. We also discussed what I liked about their service, what I didn’t like, and how they differ fundamentally from Shapeways. I learned a little about what is coming down the pipe from Ponoko. We spoke about future opportunities and ideas and I learned a lot.
I talked to Robert Schouwenburg (the CTO and Cofounder of the site on which you're reading this blog) about the idea I had for a specialized 3D modeling software. We also discussed post production techniques, technical issues I’ve had with the site, features I’d like to see, and a few future plans he has in store for Shapeways. He talked about the lifestyle change of moving from a 200,000 person city in the Netherlands over to NYC apartment life. It was also interesting to see his dialogue with Scott Harmon.
On the walk over to Pour House the happy hour bar, Scott Harmon the vice president of business development for zCorp and I talked about what would it really take to get 3d printing going. what types of products do people want? Why hasn't it taken off yet? Why is it that t-shirts are available, fully customizable and printed on demand from companies like Zazzle and Cafe Press for the same cost as ones at Hot Topic at the mall, yet people still go there to shop instead of making their own. What will be the industry that really pushes 3d printing?
I chilled at the bar at a happy hour with Bre Pettis who is the founder of MakerBot Industries and also the NYC Resister, a hackerspace in Brooklyn, NY, among others. Marty McGuire, a MakerBot employee as well as Baltimore Node member was there as well.
I learned more about what goes into metal printing at the industry level while speaking to David Burns, the President and COO of Ex One. It was interesting to learn more about the process, and about the way his business works. We talked about other things regarding starting businesses, and self-funding vs Kickstarter or taking out a bank loan.
I saw the Fab@Home 4 color play-dough printer and that was really neat. Bits from Bytes, a company recently acquired by 3D systems, used FDM to make some very high quality PLA prints which were nice looking, and smelled like waffle syrup. Interactive Fabrication, a group from Carnegie Mellon University had a few things they were demoing, most of which I’d seen blog posts of before, but trying them out in person was pretty neat. I used their 3d modeler on the iPad to move around blobs at different depths with my fingers, and by tilting the iPad, I could change the view angle on the monitor. I also saw a lot of ceramic pottery that had been printed, and kiln fired. The space shuttle made of 3d printed cheese was interesting.
One of my favorite quotes came from an attorney during the first panel. He raised a question about how in the future people will be buy files and print their own objects. He was concerned that people would stop going to malls and that grass would grow over the parking lot. I don’t see why that’s a problem. This reminds me of that ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot’ song. I’m sure we’d all like to see that, in reverse. It was amazing to see how different a point of view someone like that had.
During the second panel Melba Kurman had to clarify after she said there is “nothing interesting to make” with 3d printing. I was amongst a few others who groaned when she uttered those words. I think she meant that so far only a few people are 3d printing and 3d designing, and that the mass population is not currently flocking to computers to made 3d models and 3d prints, like we all once did when we first found out about the internet. It could have been worded a lot better.
The meet and greet, followed by two panels: Meet the Printers and How a Promising Technology Might Get Shelved, demos of 3d printing and products, talking with the 3d printing giants, showing off my Shapeways and Ponoko prints and explaining how I made them to others, sharing new ideas and learning about the future of 3d printing made this event one I’ll never forget.