The Singer problem

When I give presentations I often talk about “the Singer problem.” A
lot of people are hyping desktop manufacturing, mass customization and
mass personalization. They talk of a world where we will each have
desktop machines capable of customizing or making almost anything.
These machines will be compact, inexpensive and easy to use. The inputs
for them will be cheap and widely available. Designs will be traded,
sold and distributed to everyone.

We will all use our
creativity to them move away from a world where everything is mass
produced and mass marketed to one where we make products based on
functionality. People will be able to sell or be self-sufficient and
these devices will have massive implications for society. This is the
“big idea” around a lot of the desktop 3D printer hype. 

Well..theres a gaping hole in this future and that is The Singer problem.

have all been able to do pretty much everything described above for the
last 150 years. All one has to do is buy a Singer sewing machine. You
can pick one up for $100. The inputs: cloth and thread are widely
available in a wide selection for low prices. You can buy or get
designs or patterns as they are called worldwide. The machine is
relatively easy to operate. You can customize many of the things you
own. And as far as clothing goes you could even make everything

So why is it that I only know five people who
actively use sewing machines? Why is it that even they buy most of
their clothing off the rack? It has to do with several things:

1. brands do manage to elicit meaning from us

2. sewing is “for girls” and not cool

3. sometimes people just want to be followers, even though they say they want to be unique

4. most people generally can not be bothered

5. most people think they can’t do things, so they don’t try

The perception is that it is ‘cheaper’ to buy clothing than to make it
because of the perceived large investment in time and ‘bother.’

7. We would all like to make beautiful things but risk having to put in a lot of effort before we can do that.

8. We would all like to make beautiful things but risk spending a lot of time and then ending up with an ugly thing. Or worse yet, a thing that others find ugly

Apart from 2 all these questions apply to desktop 3D printing also. In the case of two however just substitute girls for nerds and you will encounter another future roadblock.

Brands and mass produced items solve all these issues. The perceived cost is less, it is much easier, it is per definition popular(and beautiful etc.) because it is in shops(and because they tell you it is), you only run the risk of making a bad purchase not creating something ‘bad’ etc.

The true cost of desktop manufacturing is not the printer or the inputs. It will not take off at some magical point like DVD players did, as easy as DVD players did. DVD players went from $2000 to $20 because people perceived having them as valuable and everyone could do things with them. DVD players took off because they fit into traditional patters of media use and made these easier and better. DVD players took off because they augmented existing infrastructure. DVD players took off because there were a lot of movies to watch on them. Demand drives supply. 

The ease of use, utility and price of things made by desktop 3D printers will have to exceed that of mass produced goods before this revolution is to happen. 3D design will have to be simple and designs plentiful. Only then could some semblance of this global revolution occur.

But wait..I work for Shapeways, shouldn’t I be cheering this revolution on? Yes, and I do. Indeed Shapeways could have been a 3D printer offered for sale. Instead Shapeways is a community that gives people access to a lot of different machines and production processes.

Why are we the latter? Because when even better production processes emerge they will be expensive and the equipment will be expensive and we will still be able to offer the process directly to our community. You will make lots of stuff and we will be able to lower prices. Rinse, repeat. Meanwhile our Creator tools, and all our community members will make lots of different designs. These designs will be inspiring and useful and they will draw in more people. That is how we will do our bit to make the mass customization revolution happen.

The magical moment for 3D printing will not be that someone makes a $5000 desktop 3D printer. The tipping point will be one of these three:

1. when someone develops a 3D modeling application that anyone can use and many can master(and that produces good printable files).

2. when someone develops a post consumer recycled 3D printing material

3. when printing metal and circuits becomes cheap   


  1. Frank Buss

    I don’t think sewing and 3D printing is the same. Especially your point 5 “most people think they can’t do things, so they don’t try” is not true: Sewing can be complicated, even if you have a manual and some designs it is difficult to do it right, because you have to do lots of manual things, like cutting cloth, putting multiple cloth parts the right way on top of each other and feeding it to the sewing machine etc.

    In contrast, for a fully automated 3D printer, you simply hit a button in your printing program and it prints your model. You have just to refill some material tank and maybe sometimes cleaning the device or the printed parts. If the material is food safe, there are many many more possible applications than what you can do with a sewing machine.

    “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” :)

  2. Joris


    I would agree that sewing is perhaps a bit more complicated than I let on.

    In principle 3D printing could be less complex, but things like removing support material, knowing which models can be printed and how, checking if files can be printed, cleaning, machine orientation, materials are also a bit more complex than people think.

    I would agree with you that potentially it could be less complex than sewing. Just not in the near term.

    And in reference to the much maligned Mr. Thomas Watson: I think he simply has yet to be proved right. Potentially it would make much more sense for there to be five large cloud computers doing all the processing for everyone. How silly is it that we all carry these power hungry inefficient processors around everywhere? As far as I know he didn’t put a time frame on his prediction.

    I’m not trying to say that desktop 3D printing won’t happen. I just want to temper the “we will all use our flying cars to get to work crowd.” And I’m trying to point out that people are busy working on the DVD player when they should be working on the ‘Lion King.”

  3. Whystler

    4. When everyone is taught or develops a highly evolved sense of design.

    1. Joris Peels


      Don’t we all already have a sense of design? But, is it more a sense of “following” rather than creating?

    2. Steve

      *4. When everyone is taught or develops a highly evolved sense of design.*

      Then it’s going to be a very long time before this happens, at least here in the US.
      I watched an interview with Syd Mead a few months back and he was asked why he stopped designing for GM and other companies that produce physical objects and he said that it was because people are basically Illiterate these days when it comes to design. We don’t teach art or art appreciation in school any more, so people don’t grow up with any appreciation for good visual design vs. bad and are willing to tolerate whatever is thrown at them.

      If people are willing to put up with bad design and just accept it as the way things are, why do you need designers ?

      3D printing is not going to make everyone a design genius overnight.

  4. Martin Källström

    Hi, in Sweden were I live almost every household with people over 40 years old have a sewing machine (and use them). Among the younger generation it is less common but occurs quite frequently. If your reasoning has any merit, does this mean that 3D printers will go mainstream in Sweden even if not in other countries?

    If there was anything like “The Singer problem”, how come you can rightly assume that everyone knows that they produce sewing machines? If “The Singer problem” was reality, no one would have heard of the brand.

    1. Jan Ställssömor

      > [shortened] In Sweden most households with 40+ year olds have and use a
      > sewing machine. Does this mean 3D printers will go mainstream in Sweden?

      When the IKEA “Kackerlacka” 3-D printer comes out, people will beat a path to their door
      – in America. Swedes would be heading *OUT* the door, and quick!

      ‘Kackerlacka’ is Swedish for ‘cockroach’, but it’s such a good ‘printer’ sounding word… ;-)

    2. Joris

      Jan & Martin,

      would it make sense for IKEA to sell a desktop 3D printer? Would it make sense for anyone to sell one?

      Either it would work and everyone would use it to print more 3D printers or it would not be good enough for that and then why would you want one?

      And will the razorblade lock in work for 3D printers? Well not if the machines become good enough.


  5. Michael

    So maybe 3D printing doesn’t make the jump into everyone’s home overnight, but computers didn’t do this either. They first started out in large organizations, and slowly filtered down into businesses, and finally individuals.

    I think the same will happen with 3D printers. We also need to think about them less as simple plastic extruders, and more like machines capable of rapid manufacturing. Before I have one in my bedroom, it’ll be the case that Foot Locker scans my feet and builds my shoes while a wait.

    1. Michael

      That is what prompted me to write this post.

      The process is limited by people’s ability to design, the constraints of the process and the outputs of desktop printers currently.

      Why not reinforce the top down approach then, rather than throwing a machine into the market place.

  6. John

    This is like saying file sharing on the net had a Singer problem. We had tapes and dubbers and mail and so on, and there was SOME music sharing. But when it became automated and required no knowledge – suddenly it dominates the traffic on the Internet.

  7. Ken

    Summary: sewing hasn’t caught on, 3d fabrication is like sewing for many reasons, therefore 3d printers won’t catch on.

    But what about cooking? It also shares all of these attributes with sewing, and yet home cooking is bigger than ever, across many demographics. Heck, we’ve even got reality TV shows about chefs.

    1. Joris


      Cooking has a low barrier to entry because we all have to cook every day anyway. So learning how to cook, picking up a recipe and trying something new has an immediate benefit. What I ate today is tastier and more interesting than what I ate yesterday.

      But, previously people saw it as a chore and very few people can actually cook well, fewer still have formal cooking training.

      What happened with cooking was that Julia Child, Delia Smith etc. made it an aspirational thing to cook well. They also gave us clear instructions and showed us how “anyone could do it.” So, it was aspirational & achievable thing, that was promoted and provided an immediate benefit.

      Throw in the new nuclear family, suburbia, more exposure to overseas, household appliances that make things easier and the development of “cooking is fun” diverges from sewing.

      Delia and Julia pulled a “Tom Sawyer’s Whitewashed fence” on us all. Never have so many wanted to cook well. But, if you look at the statistics never have so many spent so little time cooking. This dichotomy is to me a sure indicator that you can turn a ‘chore’ into a hobby but that even then people still really want convenience more than anything.

      The issue with sewing then is that it did not have its’ Julia Child. The issue with 3D printers in the home is that they will need a Julia Child. But, the direct benefit of the process, the “making it easier”, the designs/recipes are what will make 3D printing mainstream(or not).

  8. secret developer

    I run a 3d printing startup and we have a solution for all these problems…

  9. fracai

    I think a more appropriate analogy would be to text printing.

    At first we had scribes, then the printing press which was complicated and only available to the technologically specialized. These days you press a button and receive a nicely printed page without any need for cleanup. The process requires cheap paper and ink (OK, the ink is probably the most expensive component, but for what you get it is mostly reasonable).

    I foresee the support material problem will diminish with time and soon will be taken care of entirely by the device.

    The “Singer problem” is really an indication that it’s cheaper and more efficient to buy pre-made products than it is create your own. For those that want to make their own clothing, the process is available. It’s not like you can dump fabric, thread, and a design document into a bin, press a button, and have a winter jacket spit out. And not everyone will design their own 3D products; many will buy a model and print the result.

  10. Singer Specialist

    It is true that sewing can be incredibly difficult, but i have found that with Singer, sewing is enjoyable and relaxing. I create all my clothes and enjoy doing it while i am sewing! Any Singer Sewing machine is a great deal, with easy to use features and many different stitches, up to 80 (I believe). I recommend Singer to any dedicated Sewer! :)

  11. Felix

    Not everyone will have a 3D printer at home, however I think there is a lot of people around (Model railroaders, wargamers, scale model builders and other hobbyists) which could have use of a desktop 3D printer. Don’t forget that a lot of small/very small businesses could be interested into very affordables machines because they would don’t have to wait anymore the prototypes printed by a service bureau.
    The main issues I can see for now are:
    1° Price (machine and materials)
    2° Printing quality
    If a manufacturer can bring to the market a machine which solves these two issues, then it will start !
    I don’t think that software is a problem because “easy to use” software exists already, the main concern “price” will be solved by itself because the big names of CAD/Design software won’t be able to grow by bypassing this new and big market…

    1. Joris

      I do believe it will be an interesting tool for small businesses especially with spare parts and ‘just in time’ types of processes. The ‘cheap’ machines now: 10k or so aren’t that good yet though.

      “easy to use” to me is something someone could learn in a matter of weeks. How long before you can 3D model, use CAD adequately? 6months?


    2. Felix

      I think a lot of people (but not everyone, I mean “everyone can sing, but only few don’t sing like;-) ) is able to learn to draw something basical in a couple of days.Exactly like every ability, it need some training. The rest is talent, and not everyone has a very high amount of it…
      There is some people around that cannot visualise/imagine anything in 3D in their head, of course for them it would be an impossible task to learn to draw something in 3D…

  12. sivam

    How come all this speculation is going on when one company namely figure prints has cracked the problem ?

    They create value – to a small set of people who love their avatars.

    Something we can learn from.

    1. Joris Peels


      Sure Figureprints works, so does Shapeways but both these companies 3D print as a service for consumers. Figureprints prints WOW avatars using Zcorp and it works wonderfully. What I’m skeptical about is desktop 3D printers. Will people buy them?

    2. Frank Buss

      This depends on how expensive the printers will be. You have already some regulars for your service, who prints new objects every some weeks. As soon as the printer and consumables are less expensive, maybe calculated for some years, I think at least some of these people would buy one. Of course, even then your service may be better, because of the very good support, interesting new ideas like the ice printer, metal printer etc. :-)

    3. Joris


      although I’m wondering are you guys a service or a showcase for Genometri? I thought that the whole idea was for you guys to sell your customization software to other people?

      The figurine reminds me a lot of what fabidoo used to do.

    4. sivam


      We do acknowledge others. As in our blog : . We do not imagine to be alone in this, nor do we claim to know the way forward in something that many great attempts are being made.

    5. fracai

      Paper printers used to be exclusively a high end deal. Then the desktop printer came along, but we still have high end print shops and even low / mid range like at Kinkos.

      I think there is no question that we will some day have desktop 3D printers. The technology will get better and cheaper. I also have no doubt that Shapeways and others like it will move on and push the technology as well. You’re already starting to move into metal printing ( and water ;) ) and have even had a price drop on your materials. I’d be very surprised if that trend didn’t continue over time.

  13. Shapeways Blog

    I was thrilled by the response to the Singer problem post so I’ve decided to once more share another one of my tortured analogies with you.The Milk analogyMilk is a huge business. A typical US consumer consumes 178 pounds of milk products a year and dri

  14. Shapeways Blog

    I was thrilled by the response to the Singer problem post so I’ve decided to once more share another one of my tortured analogies with you.The Milk analogyMilk is a huge business. A typical US consumer consumes 178 pounds of milk products a year and dri

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  16. Walter Sharrow

    I would like to interject one idea that might be the true tipping point for desktop 3D printing, simple access to easily modifiable models. Much in the same way you can buy Music online or Books, what if you could buy access to Models online?

    Then, with some simple, NooB tools, people could tweak the size, shape in small ways, control the color and pattern. It would act like a Sci-Fi Teleporter, at least in most people’s eyes. They buy something online and it magically appears in their printing machine.

    It’d happen like this…

    #1. They would buy rights to print a model from a website (which shares revenue with the artist)

    #2. Download the secure model to their computer and automatically pop it into their printing application.

    #3. Tweak the object to fit their needs.

    #4. Print and Enjoy. (Or be unhappy and request a re-print, and/or refund)

    Shapeways is actually setup to do some of this now. You host the models and provide a revenue stream back to us, the artists that make the objects. But you lack tools to easily tweak the model. Also, your delivery time is about 2 weeks, which is a LONG TIME to wait in these days.

    Might I suggest, in the future, you offer tools to allow the buyer to tweak the model? Scale is a big thing, with automatic checking for minimum wall thickness. And when you do offer Color 3D Printing, tools to both color an item, as well as upload texture to cover the item with?

    The future of this business isn’t in the model printing, it’s in the model making and distribution. You are in a prime spot to take advantage of that.

  17. Shapeways Blog

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  20. Aanchal Jain

    Hey Joris,
    I had an assignment to do and your post has been quite a boon!
    I just have a few points to make from what i observed,
    • It is not compulsory for the 3D printers to be available in every house. In the early phase while it is in the market, these printers are targeting only those who want to produce for a commercial purpose. Consider, self-entrepreneurs. Entry barriers like huge land labour capital are almost reduced to half of what was needed.
    • As far as the Singer problem is concerned, the machines were a big boon who wanted to start off sewing on a commercial basis. They couldn’t afford the mass production tools and their clientele was not that huge for them to invest so heavily. Same goes for 3D printers. Those who really want to start up their venture will learn the designing bit and produce in tandem with the demand. Customization is a big hit with the consumers today. And 3D Printing gives it efficiency.
    • Also, the biggest merit is the wastage reduction! Wastages bite a huge chink off the producers’ profit. With 3D Printing, the wastages are reduced and thereby expenses.

    Like everything other thing in the world, 3D becoming a household thing will take time! But it certainly will be present in the houses that really want it!

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