Disruptive Technology: Home 3D Printing

3D Printing & Imaging
Disruptive Technology: Home 3D Printing

Anyone who pays close attention to the game of baseball is likely familiar with Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s manager whose radical approach to evaluating player stats, using a system of empirical analysis called sabermetrics, fundamentally changed baseball economics. Billy Beane’s story of disrupting a time-honored approach to managing baseball is the subject of the upcoming film, MoneyBall.

“Huxley,” the most recent RepRap model

There are a few technologies to emerge from the maker movement that have been more “disruptive” than the desktop 3D printer. One of the hallmarks of such game-changing ideas is often being met with skepticism, if not outright derision. When the RepRap project (short for “replicating rapid prototyper”) was announced in 2005, with the goal of creating an open source three-dimensional desktop printer that could replicate copies of itself and spark a revolution in democratized home manufacturing, many eyes were rolled. It seemed too early in the 21st century for such a self-replicator, too Pollyannish of an idea. But the concept was readily embraced by hardy hackers, and slowly, a revolution began gathering its cadre.

MakerBot co-founder Bre Pettis showing off a 3D-printed MakerBot “transformer.”

And then, MakerBot came along, in 2009. And it too was met with skepticism and nay-saying. Where RepRap was a complete do-it-yourself project with community support, MakerBot, was a kit that you assembled (or could buy already assembled). It was greeted with lots of enthusiasm, but as little more than proof-of-concept for a home 3D printing future, a fun geek toy. But in just a few years, MakerBot has proven itself to be far more than that. Over 3,500 units have been sold to date and demand for the device has been so great that MakerBot Industries has even paid ‘Bot owners to fabricate parts for additional units. Improved new models and accessories have been released and there are even third-party concerns now selling MakerBot add-ons. One of the other ingenious ideas behind MakerBot is Thingiverse, a website launched in concert with the MakerBot hardware. It allows users of all 3D printers and laser-cutters to upload, download, and discuss 3D printable design files. And the next phase of MakerBot’s development should be fun to watch, with the recent $10 million investment from venture capital firm The Foundry Group. MakerBot also just launched its own web TV show.

Ultimaker creators, Erik De Bruijn (left) and Martijn Elserman (right), with product ready to ship.

YouTube player

Like all successful endeavors and disruptive technologies, imitators and product-improvers help create and expand a market and drive innovation forward. The latest player in the desktop 3D printer world is the Ultimaker. In our recent coverage of this new printer hailing from the Netherlands, author Jon Kalish describes the improvements over MakerBot:

Like MakerBot, Ultimaker can print with either ABS or PLA plastic, though the company says printing with the plant-based PLA makes for a faster and more stable build. The Ultimaker is getting high grades for its design. Unlike the MakerBot, which has a moving build platform, the Ultimaker has a print head that moves. It is compact and weighs considerably less than MakerBot’s print head, and the Ultimaker’s motors are mounted on the printer’s frame, not on a moving part like MakerBot. This allows for bigger objects to be made (8.25″ cube for Ultimaker vs. 5″ cube for MakerBot) at higher speeds.

One can easily imagine that MakerBot, now flush with cash, will quickly leapfrog over Ultimaker, and other 3D printer concerns, both large and small, will emerge and drive this new technology even father. The interesting question is: If makers, basement developers with little cash and a lot of grand ideas, hadn’t pushed out this technology “ahead of its time,” where would such tech be today? And the corollary: Given the speed with which this market is developing, where might desktop 3D printing be in five years? Star Trek Replicators and von Neumann Universal Constructors, here we come!

Home 3D printing is one “disruptive technology” to come out of the maker movement. Arduino is obviously another. What are some other technologies you can think of? Please share in the comments.

This post in sponsored by MoneyBall.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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