Mind the Gap – How 3D Printers Will Make the Jump to Consumer Products

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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.


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.


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.


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!

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Jeff is a Mechanical Engineer working in Atlanta for a small design firm, with interests ranging from technology & science, to culinary arts, botany, literature, and other topics.

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