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Cube
3D Systems’ Cube Printer.

It is often said that the consumer 3D Printer industry is at the same place now as the PC industry was in the late ’70s, with every other company proclaiming their latest machine “the Apple II of 3D Printers.”  Unfortunately for everyone, consumers and manufacturers included, this is clearly false.  In reality, we haven’t even seen something that could be considered the equivalent of the Apple I; we’re only now at the stage of the Altair 8800.  In those days switchboards were a primary interface, computers came with a primary visual feedback in the form of a handful of LEDs, the machines were less flexible and capable, and it was tricky for anyone but the very technically savvy to operate them for any stretch of time.  In spite of this, it was a time of rapid development where newer and better machines were being introduced in quick succession.  To see how the familiar gap between the printers currently available and those viable as a major consumer product could be crossed, we need to examine certain critical factors in their design right now and in the future.

Altair 8800

The Altair 8800. Image from Wikipedia.

First, the level of good design practice involved in a machine is the most critical factor with regards to its performance.  No amount of software or decorative coverings will compensate for over or under constrained mechanisms, poorly managed electrical design, or improperly built drive systems.  Many consumer printers today suffer from deficiencies in at least one of these areas, preventing them from reaching their maximum potential performance in metrics like speed, accuracy, and reliability.

The second limiting factor for machine performance is its software.  Most slicing and control software today is either readily adjusted and clunky or streamlined to the point of inflexibility, and the state of firmware choices is a labyrinthine nightmare.  Most of this arises from the nature of open source development; while it does allow for quick iterative improvements from many contributors, it introduces a great deal of fragmentation almost as quickly.  As a result, selecting the best combination of firmware, slicing, and control software is often a considerable challenge.

With those two factors detailed, it is fortunately the case that the first factor will become less and less of an issue with time; simple competition sees to this.  However, that still leaves us with the problems I mentioned concerning software.  Not only that, but compounding this is the fact that there is yet to be a true killer app for printers.

In the PC era the earliest killer app was VisiCalc, a spreadsheet application that spurred rapid adoption of PCs by the financial industry.  Later, word processors further propelled the adoption of PCs into the consumer realm.  In both of these cases, the applications made it simpler for an average person who had never used a computer before to do useful work in a short amount of time.  The current hurdle for the same regarding printers is the process of making new objects to print; this is the make or break item between printers jumping from hobbyist and industry tools to full-blown consumer products. To make a part on a printer right now, you can either

  1. Download a .STL file from an online repository, make only very slight changes to it at best, and print it.  Or

  2. Use a fairly complex CAD or 3D design program to design an object whole cloth, convert it to a .STL file, and print it.

Based on the complexity inherent in most CAD programs which on a good day are on par with Photoshop – not to mention the design process itself – most new users are limited to the first option.  Here’s how I think this will be addressed:

Intuitive Interfaces: As I mentioned, virtually all CAD interfaces are too complex for most to use without a considerable time investment on the user’s part to become competent.  No one can say for certain what direction these programs’ development will go, but there are a number of possibilities.  One of these is that existing and upcoming interface devices, like haptics and 3D gesture interfaces, will lead to more intuitive control schemes than the current 2D mouse and keyboard.  Another is a change in how models are generated; instead of working from the drafting-based scheme that exists today, perhaps more freeform techniques will become available.  SketchUp, AutoDesk 123D, and the introduction of several Minecraft-based .STL generation programs could be a dim glimpse toward more accessible CAD systems.

123D

AutoDesk 123D Design

Direct Copying: On the other end of the spectrum, imagine putting a part into a 3D scanner, scanning it, and producing a print-ready model with not a single CAD program opened in the entire process.  It’s a familiar enough concept, effectively giving printers copy machine capabilities.  While technically challenging, this kind of functionality is in no way infeasible.

Digitizer

MakerBot recently announced that they’re working on a 3D Scanner, the Digitizer.

Adaptive Infill: One common point of confusion encountered during printing is the type and amount of infill a printer should be set to, particularly for objects that need to stand up to certain loads.  It may be possible to integrate FEA-like analysis into programs like OpenSCAD, taking the guesswork out of this process by having infill type and density automatically generated throughout the part for the desired specifications.

In a similar vein, one of the current banes of hobbyist printers is parts warping, which can ruin hours-long print jobs.  Several individuals have experimented with manually altering infill patterns and densities, eliminating warping in large parts.  Developing algorithms to generate infill patterns to minimize warping would get rid of this problem without a single design change to existing printers.

Infill

Photo from RichRap

Combined Processing: A popular trick with many printed parts is seamlessly introducing non-printed components into said part, like nuts or bolts.  Right now, this is achieved through relatively crude means, and the process isn’t very flexible.  However, it may be possible to generate paths for a printer to follow that would not only halt printing for the insertion of non-printed components, but to have the machine avoid collisions and print around them.  This is technically possible – it’s been a feature of CAM software for years – but may require a great deal more uniformity in extruder hot end design.  With this capability, it would be possible to seamlessly integrate mechanical and electrical parts and assemblies into prints.  Not only would this permit more complex projects to be printed, but such hybrid projects could cause many of the downsides inherent in complex printed assemblies to vanish altogether.

Apart from these are countless other game-changing developments that could arise, and they could come from anywhere.  After all, most of the biggest names today in PC development did not exist before hobbyists began to get their hands on the first kit computers.  Here’s to hoping it’s not a long wait!

Jeff Landrum

Jeff is a freshly-minted Mechanical Engineer from Georgia Tech, with interests ranging from technology & science, to culinary arts, botany, literature, and other topics.


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Comments

  1. Doug says:

    Visicalc allowed accountants to do financials that they had been working by hand, in a laborious and error prone way.
    What physical object do I need in my home that would be easier to print, assuming all the things you say about printing happen in the future?
    Would that item not be available at the autoparts store, Home Depot, Target, or any of the other shops nearby? Assume that I am a DIY or crafty person, and the total addressable market gets much, much smaller. Most people use their PC for email and Facebook, not Visicalc. The third quarter of the computer revolution is all about communication. There is no path I can envision where 3D printing is social beyond the local 3D Printers meetup.
    Assume I have an average US middle class home and family, what exactly am I supposed to print?
    Sorry, I do think this is cool technology, but I just don’t get why it will be the next PC.

  2. Alan Dove says:

    Good points by Doug, and I want to pile on a bit. What justifies the implicit assumption that any 3-D printer will ever achieve an Apple II-like breakthrough? Just because a technology seems cool and has a lot of outspoken enthusiasts backing it doesn’t guarantee it’s going to change the world. When I was growing up the futurists promised me flying cars, jet packs, and pneumatic tube mass transit. When are those going to have their Apple II breakthroughs?

  3. Jason Doege says:

    You won’t see the “Apple II” of 3-d printers they are completely different in nature, I think. I think the question to ask is, “When will we see the LaserWriter of 3-d printers?” The LaserWriter (plus the Macintosh and PageMaker) being what brought desktop publishing to the masses.

  4. asciimation says:

    I suspect 3D printers l be a lot like dye sublimation photo printing. When digital cameras started appearing so did photo quality home printers. The ones that do ‘real’ photograph type prints are the dye sublimation printers. I have one of those myself and it works great. I can print real 6×4 photographic prints at home in less than a minute. But these days it’s easier (and cheaper) to go into any mall or photo shop and use their machine to make prints.

    I can see 3D printing going the same way. You pop down to the local shop with your file and print it out on some large commercial machine in whatever colour and whatever material you want to a high degree of accuracy.

    Printers in the home will still have their uses for people making things all the time but for the casual users they don’t really make sense. Even as someone who makes a lot of different random things I can’t think of enough uses to justify a 3D printer in my own home. Maybe that’s just the nature of the things I make. Like Doug says what would an average person actually print?

    Simon

  5. Jim says:

    Until consumer versions can handle metal and electronics they’re nothing more than a hobby. 3D printing is even more overhyped than this article describes. There is very little that a non-hobbyist can use a printer for that is only made of plastic and limited plastic at that. Current printers aren’t even at the Altair 8800 stage. We’re still in the mainframe era where only businesses can afford the investment in 3D printers that actually do something and even then they are very limited. The article is completely correct that computers needed to actually be able to do work before they became more than a toy.

    Additive manufacturing is clearly the future and it is starting to hit factories using for example metals. There’s nothing wrong with 3D printing as a hobby but just like model rocketry, that’s all it currently can be.

  6. Jeff Landrum says:

    There are a lot of good points brought up in the comments so far, but I’m unfortunately indisposed to put up a thorough clarification that can satisfactorily address them until around Sunday evening. Check back here around then for that follow-up!

  7. Jeff Landrum says:

    All of these are good points and I think I can more thoroughly explain my point of view by elaborating a bit more on the comparisons I made in the article; I’ll start with the PC side.

    General computers in the form of PCs were touted as tools that could make any task easier and more accessible, starting with computationally intensive work and going from there to more creative and entertainment-related applications. Additionally, the advent of the PC was possible due to falling prices in electronic components necessary to bring them into a range an average person could afford; early on, this was in the form of various kit machines the purchaser would assemble and load programs onto themselves.

    3D Printers are currently touted as tools that could make bespoke manufacturing simpler and more accessible. Their accessibility has been made possible, again, by falling component prices, and they are frequently available in the form of kits a purchaser assembles and – now less frequently – loads with the requisite code for proper operation. I could get into more detail, but even at this level the parallels are pretty striking, and I am by far not the first to use this comparison.

    Now, I must agree that printers for the foreseeable future do not have the kind of monolithic, Earth-shattering implications of inexpensive general computers; they’re another arm of general computing’s march forward into ever more complex, capable, and disruptive form. The near-term promise is that anyone with a PC *and* a 3D Printer could feasibly create one-off (or a hundred-off, if they’re patient) objects that would be unfeasibly expensive to make in any other way. And here’s where the metaphor really clicks:

    To get to the point where either could be used to do serious, useful work – be that spreadsheets and word processing or a making prototype of that widget you’ve had in your head for years – they needed software applications that could be used by a large number of people with as little fuss as possible. If an application – or set of applications – comes to be that makes CAD synonymous with MS Paint, the one hurdle to using printers in a serious manner will have dissolved. Think about what that would mean: a program that makes it easy enough for even an average, untrained person to make *real 3D models* of reasonable quality; the implications of 3D Printing made that accessible will change the game completely. That’s what kicked PC adoption into overdrive: accessibility.

    On the subject of ‘what are non-hobbyists going to print?’ that question reminds me of the quote by Kenneth Olsen: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” While at first printers are and will certainly continue be more popular among engineers, artists, designers, and tinkerers for the usual reasons, people will find uses for them that I do not believe any of us are really qualified to guess at. I can say for certain though that as printers become more and more common, the likelihood of someone finding a new use is a natural result of more people coming into contact with them.

  8. Midshire says:

    3D printers will evolve, the more investment is put in by companies willing to try and make the best one. Once rivalry starts such as it has, this is when performance and efficiency increase and the products develop into state of the art, much like how modern computers have from their 80′s companions.

  9. It’s interesting that despite the more and more, faster and faster technology developments, people are so skeptical. Or maybe this is exactly the reason all stories are just like some others before, and people change less and slower than necessary to keep the pace.
    I’m pretty sure somewhere in a kind of garage, somebody is working to the Peach-I (or whatever the name would be) home printer. Need a killer app? Better not! Technologies that did wait for such ‘help’ did not actually have too much success (just to mention ISDN.) Instead, those that look ahead in what democratization could bring and evolve as such, provided tremendeous opportunities (just to mention Internet.)