Bright and early next Tuesday morning, I’ll hop aboard a plane and wing my way to New York to spend what’s coming to be called “Maker Week” embedded with our editorial team covering all the amazing events that lead up to, and include, World Maker Faire New York. It’s going to be a blast, and if you’re anywhere within day-trip travel distance of Queens, you owe it to yourself to partake. You’ll see things and learn things you’d never have imagined you’d experience, and come away inspired to make.
One key focus of the event this year is 3D printing. Indeed, it’s been a focus previously, but each year the fire seems to grow exponentially hotter around this technology. There will be dozens of machines from a score of companies represented, demonstrating a variety of technologies and levels of sophistication that only makers can bring to an effort.
And even though we’ve seen a bit of maturation in this market with the sale of MakerBot to the big industrial 3D printing company Stratasys, there are still plenty of scrappy upstarts bringing their new and improved variations on the theme to market, looking for a slice of the pie. We are still very early in the development of this space, and who knows where it will go in the next few years?
In one sense though, it all seems familiar. I think what we’re watching is a re-make of the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-1980s, but this time with the twist of the internet and the maker movement helping accelerate the development process.
For those who don’t remember, prior to the ’80s, fancy typesetting and graphics work was done manually, usually using photography, light boards, and actual printing presses. The new fangled computers and software (notably early Macs with Postscript fonts and the earliest LaserWriter desktop printers) started making it possible to do creative work digitally, and allowed writers and designers to create books, brochures, advertising materials and more with clicks and typing rather than cutting pictures out and gluing them to proof pages. This was desktop prototyping of printed products.
The prototyping word is important here. By prototyping, we mean putting out iterations of a product in small numbers for review and revision. Prototyping is a step on the way to a final product that’s produced en masse.
With desktop publishing, they were prototyping their print products. Sure, they had laser printers to output high quality proofs, but when it came time to produce large quantities, the work still went to big print shops with industrial machines that worked in volume. Today, we’ve come a long way in terms of what we can produce with the machines in our offices. With high quality color laser printers (usually multifunction with scanners/copiers as well), we can put out large batches of high-quality desktop-published product. But it still makes sense in many cases to ship off big jobs to print shops.
This is the pattern we’re seeing with the desktop fabrication revolution. First, remember that the common term bandied about for 3D printers is rapid prototyping. The things we print on our MakerBot and Afinia printers are not really intended to be final products. They’re meant to be interim studies used in a development process. We’re prototyping 3D objects on our desktops the way they were prototyping documents on their desktops in the 80s. And right now, the machines we can get, while amazingly cool, are still equivalent to the earliest laser printers or inkjets in terms of sophistication and quality of output.
Things can only get better.
I also want to point out that when we talk about desktop fabrication, it’s not just 3D printing. Much in the same way that document scanners added a significant level of sophistication to what desktop publishers could do (and eventually because completely ubiquitous, and even integrated with printers), so too are we seeing 3D scanners add a new twist to desktop fabrication. MakerBot will be unveiling its new scanner during Maker Week, and we’ll likely see a few different brands at the fair. There are even crowdfunding campaigns for combination 3D scanner/printers. Soon, we’ll have the 3-dimensional equivalents of Xerox photocopiers on our desks.
But it doesn’t end there. Because prototyping isn’t just about 3D printing. It’s also about milling and cutting and etching. There are desktop-sized CNC machines now. There’s even a Kickstarter project for a combination 3D printer, etcher, and CNC, all-in-one. It’s all coming together, and it’s iterating so quickly that we’re already further along in two years than desktop publishing was in ten. That’s because there are makers involved, and because the internet is making sharing ideas so much easier that development cycles have shrunk exponentially. We’re seeing new generations of desktop fabrication hardware and software as quickly as we’re seeing new generations of smartphone.
Of course, I’ll point out again that this is all about prototyping, not production. These machines let us hone our designs, but if we want to put out finished products in quantity, we have to go to the big print shops (or buy the industrial-level machines ourselves). And when you think about it this way, that whole MakerBot/3D Systems thing makes even more sense.
So, for those coming to World Maker Faire New York next week, as you see the presentations on our 3D Printer Stage, and you see the variety of printers, scanners, laser cutters, and CNCs, put them all in this historical context. We are witnessing a revolution. Thirty years ago we gained the ability to be our own publishers. Today, we’re seeing another sea-change, and soon we’ll all be manufactures, too.
It’s been a while since we had a Crowdfund Fund update, and with Maker Faire next week, it’s going to be tough to run a poll this week toward our next round of funding. So for this week, here are a number of the projects we’ve got on our curated Kickstarter page. Please check them out – a few of them will be closing soon, so consider giving them some support if you find them compelling. Ultil later, see you all in New York!