NY entrepreneur and tech guru Anil Dash wrote a much discussed post about his wishlist for the future of 3D printing, arguing that despite his enthusiasm, “I don’t think we’re on the path to widespread adoption and success for 3D printers yet.” Anil’s post focuses on the market for 3D printers as devices, and within that context, I agree with many of his sentiments. However, by expanding the focus beyond 3D printers for the home and considering all the ways in which everyday people can use the technology to make the stuff in their lives, it’s increasingly clear that the future of 3D printing – and moreover the future of stuff – is already here.

He encouraged us to open up the debate in our blog as well, so here goes…please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments field! Our CTO Robert Schouwenburg has already chimed in.

Please note, this represents my view and is not an official company statement. 

Your future, this way

From Printers at Home to Printers in the Cloud

Many people writing about the current state of the 3D printing industry discuss the barriers to mainstream usage. Robert Mitchell explains that 3D printing is awaiting its “iPad moment” but that the high costs and the technical knowledge required are preventing widespread adoption. Anil also asserts that many of the at home technologies are sold as kits, versus ready-to-use products, which might be less accessible for the everyday user (though it should be noted that MakerBot, Ultimaker, RepRap, fab labs, and others have done an amazing job of lowering the barriers to entry and increasing knowledge about the technology). So when you take high costs, complex technology, and add to the mix hard to find, expensive materials, it’s not surprising that many are calling for a reality check on the industry buzz.

However, these qualms often make two assumptions about the consumer-facing 3D printing industry:

  1. The 2D printer industry is the most appropriate analogue
  2. As such, printing at home is the most viable path forward for mainstream usage

To the first point, while inkjet printers and their brethren do readily lend themselves to analogy, it’s quite limiting. Both types of printers take digital files and convert them into something tangible that you can hold in your hand. Both require material inputs, have home and industrial uses, and have the word “printer” in them (semantics shouldn’t be overlooked!). However, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize product design and manufacturing; the home printer, by contrast, increased access but didn’t fundamentally change what was being created. Though it’s not crucial to agree on the perfect analogue – others include the Guttenberg Press and semiconductor – it is crucial that whatever analogue we latch onto does not limit our vision of the future.

To the second point, it seems that the hyper focus on 3D printing at home is misguided. The vision is easy to relate to, in large part because of the 2D printer analogue and the general proliferation of personal devices. For designers, printing at home is an amazing way to rapidly prototype products, try out new ideas, and make objects for personal use or friends. For the tech-savvy, printing at home has the potential to enable creation on demand for personal use. As material costs go down and the technology becomes easier to use, we’re likely to see more and more homes, schools, and companies with 3D printers ripe for translating imagination into experimentation. However, 3D printing at home will likely be only one of many ways in which people engage with the technology.

Even with cost and tech improvements, the “at home” model currently relies on technology that is best suited for prototypes, and perhaps some finished plastic products. Will the machines that are capable of printing high-quality products, which currently cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, see a reduction in price such that your average Joe can buy one for his small business? Or similarly, will individuals be inclined to hold stock of dozens of materials so they can print exactly what they want? It’s definitely within the realm of possibility, particularly once existing patents expire, but I’m more inclined to place bets on a future in which people can make whatever they want using 3D printing, even if they don’t have the printer at home or CAD design skills.

What we’re doing at Shapeways is circumventing the need for personal printers. By connecting our community members to state-of-the-art 3D printers across the world, we’re enabling access to the best production technologies and processes. As with cloud computing, it doesn’t require the physical presence of the machine or server in order to serve its purpose. Simultaneously, we’re lowering the costs and making the technology more accessible, with things like our Creators and an open API that enables things like creating unique avatars from popular games like Minecraft. This means that today, people of all tech backgrounds can create products, not prototypes, in over 25 materials, and of quality that competes with traditional manufacturing methods. While we might not have nailed down the Teleporter just yet, we’re trying to make it damn easy to make whatever you want (see a Christmas example of designing a toy from a child’s imagination).

The Future of e-Commerce…or rather “c-Commerce”

In full disclosure, I’m not a 3D designer and am probably left of center on the Luddite to Leet scale. So what excites me the most about the future of 3D printing is not the how, but rather the what. As Robert explains, we’re already seeing a major changes in four areas:

  1. Personalized products and personal fabrication
  2. Reduction in the design-to-manufacturing cycle
  3. A revival of manufacturing to the Western world
  4. Manufacturing of parts which were formerly impossible to make

The first area – personalized products and personal fabrication – has the largest potential to disrupt the consumer market, particularly when coupled with the rapid growth of e-commerce. And it’s already happening. At Shapeways, we’re tackling this by building a marketplace for relevant, custom products, created on demand. This is a radical departure from traditional e-commerce and its sexier variants in that people can actually take part in the creative process and help make the stuff in their lives. The seeds have been planted by companies like Kickstarter, Qwirky or Zazzle, which enable participatory design and demand-led production.

To Anil’s point on staying connected – by bringing together the power of community design and individual need, we’re seeing personalized production, or mass customization, at scale. It’s a shift from click and buy to customize and create. We’ve been calling this “creative commerce,” or c-commerce, and believe this trend will be increasingly apparent as all the bugs in the system get ironed out (i.e., when 3D design becomes increasingly easier to use).

If technology enables us to make sense of the physical world, 3D printing lets us construct the physical world. This, at least, is happening now.

Your future, this way / Alex Marshall / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/