A theme which has appeared on CD3D since the site’s creation is a quest to answer the question whether 3D printers are really what the world needs? Is the idea of a 3D printer in every home real, and if so when will it come true? For over two years, myself and other authors publishing on this website, have wondered if and how these devices could be used in everyday life and what were the conditions and the limitations that need to be overcome to have ordinary people begin to use them regularly?
The people who make up the community and the industry of 3D printing is rather divided in this regard (typical in Poland…). Some people believe that 3D printing is a strictly industrial technology that will never be domesticated because of its character – others have quite a different view; they believe that it is only a matter of time – that a critical mass needs to be reached and 3D printers will become popular all over the world. For a long time I have opted for the former, not being able to see why the proverbial Kowalski would buy a low-cost 3D printer to keep at home. I have deemed (and I still do) these devices too complicated for people used to a smartphone, tablet or a gaming console – devices much more technologically advanced and so much easier to use. Today I see it differently – it is not 3D printers which are not ready for people – it is the people who are not ready for 3D printers.
Why (still) not yet?
To start with, let’s forget about 3D printers based on other technologies than FDM. Until HP does not present the full technical specifications of its new Multijet Fusion technology, there is no possibility to ever adopt any of the other technologies for home use, or even the office. In theory, the light-cured resins are closest to reaching that goal, however, as I have pointed out numerous times, using resins at home is a dangerous idea – both for the user and the environment (see: According to a new research report, 3D printing at home can cause health problems). Regarding other technologies, such as CJP, SLS and DMLS, the devices size are problematic, or the high costs (of both the machines and the printing consumables), or the technological requirements (SLS and DMLS require a dedicated work environment).
Therefore, what remains is 3D printing in plastic. It has as many pros as cons. The pros include a relatively easy use, a short time needed to print a model (compared with other technologies), a low price of equipment and consumables and the lack of sophisticated finishing processes (in fact, you only need to remove the print supports – only if the printed model requires any). The cons consist of a whole range of common problems that occur in the course of 3D printing – starting with the issue of sticking to the print bed, problems with the filament clogging the printer head (or with the filament which runs out or breaks before the print is finished), and ending with the issues of quality that may be impossible to accept for people used to the lovely Apple products (a PLA or ABS printout will never be that nice straight out of the 3D printer).
The advantages are obvious, let us then focus on the drawbacks. They can certainly be overcome by a person with some experience with more advanced electronic devices – or possibly by someone who is eager to learn. Perhaps here lies the biggest problem with 3D printers – how to make people want to spend a lot of time honing the skills in 3D printing and related problem solving? The answer is simple – people need to start want to create new things. Today, most it simply wants to own them.
We live in an era of global consumerism. Everyone wants to have everything. Those who can not “have” dedicate their lives to change it, or seek to annihilate the world which they are not allowed into (see the Islamic movements). People obsessed with the spirit of consumerism will not be able to come to terms with the fact that the item may be available “in a few hours”, as they are accustomed to receiving it “right away” in the shop. Not to mention the apparent paradox when a client considers it “terribly long” for 3d printing of a phone case to last about one hour, while at the same time sees nothing unusual in the fact that in order to buy it “right away” in the shop, he must first travel there and often spend much more time to get there.
Consumerism boils down to “easy” and “fast”, even – “here and now”. Therefore, learning to operate a 3D printer, the 3D printing itself and the possible processing of a finished printout, stand in contradiction to what people expect. The proponents of the idea of a 3D printer in every home emphasize such aspects as personalization, the freedom to create new things or low costs of their production, but completely ignore the aspect of time.
It’s nice to be able to create your own drone, but nobody happens to mention that it may take, depending on how savvy the maker is, from a few days to a couple of weeks. In the end it is much easier to buy one on-line or in a specialized shop. Someone may say – “ok, but this way all the fun associated with the creation of something completely new is lost!”. That is true, but let me reply with the question: do people really want to create something themselves…?
In the years 2012–13 the media devoted to 3D printing technology there was much discussion about the so called “new technological revolution”. Everyone who had their own 3D printer were supposed to be able to produce all the necessary things themselves, which in turn was supposed to cause a collapse of industrial production. Today, it seems rather ridiculous and naive, however, such statements have been one of the reasons why in late 2013 a speculative bubble on the American Stock Exchange was formed, which involved 3D printing companies.
The year 2014 was a time of a big adjustment. The more people became really interested in 3D printing, the greater was the disappointment. It soon became apparent that 3D printing is like home baking bread or beer brewing… Although ready and relatively cheap kits were available on the market and the quality of the self-made products was better than could be bought in a shop, a vast majority of people still kept buying bread at the bakery and beer at a local shop. Why? Because hardly anyone is willing to do it themselves…
For the new technological revolution to become a reality, people should become “makers”. They should enjoy not just possessing an object, but the process of its creation, with the final result as a reward for the work well done, not an end in itself. It is the act of creation that motivates people to build their own drones, robots, unusual electronic gadgets, or even fantastic cosplay costumes. Otherwise they would simply buy the items or commissioned their production from a company specializing in such services. Unfortunately for the manufacturers of low-cost 3D printers, makers are still few. They constitute the vanguard, the exception, a harmless anomaly.
But things are slowly changing… And, surprisingly, the change is ushered by no grassroots movements, but by large corporations, e.g., Autodesk…
Big changes are just over the horizon
I mentioned earlier that for a very long time I used to be one of the “printer-sceptics”. That changed by the end of last year when I saw and understood the big plan by Autodesk – the leading manufacturer of specialized engineering 2D and 3D software, with respect to 3D printing. Autodesk believed in the technology – or at least that in the future it will bring a lot of profit. It began with Spark – the software for 3D printers, which the company intends to make available for free and implement in devices printing in virtually every technology. It is already acknowledged that Spark will be used in 3D printers by HP, Voxel8 or BigRep.
In Autodesk’s vision, Spark is meant to become something like Android for 3D printers – a consistent working environment, which will benefit both the creators and the users of 3D printers. However, this very innovative concept does not change the fact that people will not want to create new things, not to mention print them. Therefore, Autodesk decided to raise a new generation of users for whom designing and producing objects will be as obvious and natural, as for us it is to buy them in a shop.
To this end, the company started a pilot (so far) training projects in schools where teenagers become familiar with the principles of spatial design and the concept of 3D printing. Autodesk seems to perform exactly the same action as over a decade ago, in the case of AutoCAD – it educates and gets people using the software, with the aim of having them buy it in the future. Although in their public statements Autodesk’s presidents either mock the low-cost 3D printers or say that the concept of 3D printers in every home is a hype created by Makerbot in order to sell out to a large corporation, in fact they realize their educational program and pave the way for new times…
While the devices are completely different, in my view, the 3D printers have a lot in common with personal computers. By means of both we can create entirely new things – virtual ones in the case of computers, material ones in the case of 3D printers. With the popularization of personal computers and the Internet, the awareness of the new technologies’ usefulness increased among people. In the early 90’s, the computer scientist’s occupation was unique and exceptional. It used to be a person who managed to both set up or repair the equipment, as well as to code and programme. Nowadays it has become narrowly specialised, however, more and more people become involved in the creation of web and mobile applications or in the development of games and dedicated software. With the Raspberry Pi and Arduino multitudes of young people have become engaged in electronics.
We could say that over the last 20-30 years the intellectual level of certain people kept rising, allowing them to create things which a few dozen years ago were the domain of a small inner circle. Today, creating a website is not a big challenge for more advanced internet users. Less than fifteen years ago only individual companies would do that. Twenty years ago the website business was virtually non-existent (speaking of Poland, of course). The greater the technological development, the more people begin to shift from the position of a user to the position of a creator. Indeed, it is the aftermath of the changes initiated by Web 2.0, where the average users no longer only read websites but started to co-create them, by adding their own content to a web platform or service.
The same will inevitably happen with the 3D printing technology. Bearing in mind the changes mentioned above, it seems only natural that 3D printers will become increasingly popular as more and more people will need to use them. The next generations will grow up surrounded by devices that will be natural to them, and necessary too. Currently, the 3D printer is a device which few people are able to fully take advantage of. With time – as in the case of personal computers and the Internet, people will start to discover more of their possible applications. Maybe ones which we today can not even fathom?
We are still at the beginning of the road. Ahead of our time.