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Will 2012 Be The Year 3D Printing Goes Mainstream?

Will 2012 Be The Year 3D Printing Goes Mainstream?

A 3D printed shoe from the Cube

At CES 2012 3D Systems presented their solution to the growing debate about whether and when 3D printing will cross over to the mainstream. It came in the form of the Cube, priced at $1,299, a consumer plug-and-print product they hope will have the crossover appeal to find its way into every home, nudging the iDevices and games consoles out of the way to the top of the 2012 Christmas list. MakerBot Industries, another well-established 3D printing firm, has also made its claim to the home market with the Replicator ($1,749), a two-color printer they also launched at CES.

But the transition from obscure hobbyist product to mainstream consumer item isn’t just going to happen overnight with the wave of a magic, 3D-printed wand. So what exactly will it take for this new—currently niche market—to hit critical mass and spill over into suburbia?

With 3D printers, users can effectively turn a digital file into a physical object, either by feeding the printer a design or by scanning an object with a 3D scanner. The machine will then build the object layer by layer, even creating moveable parts and using different colors, which means less waste and an endless amount of design possibilities.

They’ve been used on an industrial scale for the past 25 years and by hobbyists and DIY makers for the last few years—and now it seems as if the home consumer market might be next. The promise of this revolutionary technology has been hanging in the air for quite a while, even the mainstream press has been talking about its impending world domination. But at the moment, that’s all speculation. So what’s it going to take for 3D printing to have its Apple II moment? That turning point when a new technology breaks through into the public consciousness and becomes part of our everyday lives? Assuming, of course, that it’s going to happen at all. As naysayers are happy to point out, 3D printing could forever remain on the fringes, an emerging technology that stays just that, before it heads off the way of virtual reality and the laserdisc: into the trash bin of history.

Community Is The Key

For Rajeev Kulkarni, the Vice President of 3D Systems, 2012 is going to be the year of 3D printing. After years spent in the R&D phase, the technology is finally approaching a point where it’s affordable enough and the process is simple enough to be accessible to the average person. “It has to do a good job of making [3D printing] easy, intuitive and very simple to use…” he explains, “the focus has been—how do you simplify something which is fairly complex and make it so easy and intuitive that anybody can use it?” And he’s not just talking about the printer itself, there’s also the supporting infrastructure that goes with it: the software, the designs, the community of users who share their work, ideas and resources. After all, this is more than just a printing device—it’s a movement that aims to turn people into makers as opposed to consumers.

These types of communities already exist—like Thingiverse and the forums and virtual workshops hosted by online 3D printing services like Shapeways and Sculpteo—but Kulkarni believes a new approach is required, one that caters entirely to the novice. Their solution is Cubify.com, which is launching in tandem with the Cube and, for 3D Systems, will be fundamental to the product’s success.

Having an online community of users who can support one another is certainly top of mind for Carine Carmy, Marketing Communications Manager at Shapeways. With the Shapeways community, because it’s a mix of experienced CAD users and novices, the former can help out the latter. “Having an online community for 3D printing is without a doubt one of the most important aspects of our business and key to the growth of 3D printing as a medium more broadly… The community has the ability to bring to life new possibilities and inspire one another. They can scale sharable knowledge since many community members are experts in the space, and it’s also a hotbed for actual work through freelance projects. For those with design experience, the online community is really instrumental in both supporting the work of 3D designers and experimenting with tools to make the process easier and more accessible.”

3D Systems’ Cube

For 3D Systems, the platform and the product have an almost symbiotic relationship. Describing the Cubify.com platform Kulkarni brings up Facebook and iTunes, comparing their functionality combined to that of Cubify.com. He’s envisioning a place where users can interact with each other, as well as download apps to personalize content and use a cloud-printing service that will print and deliver objects too large for your desktop printer to support. Users will also be able to set up their own stores, as well as create teams with other individuals.

3D Printing Goes Mobile

Along with online apps that help people create, smartphone apps could also play an important role in granting people access to this new technology. “In the future apps will make it possible for everyone to generate customizable 3D files from everyday objects just by using their smartphone." says Imogen Bailey, from Sculpteo. "There won’t be any more barriers between an object and the file of an object. Nowadays, in everyday language people no longer make a differentiation between a real picture and the digital file of the picture, the digital version… we think that the ineluctable democratization of 3D printing technology will be achieved with this kind of consumer application.”

Sculpteo recently launched an app that lets people take photos of themselves or a friend and convert them into 3D objects, like putting your profile on a cup or vase. With the right app and an ever-improving digital camera, smartphones have the potential to become pocket 3D scanners. “Soon people will be able to scan real objects to create 3D files just by using their smartphone,” says Bailey. “It will be just as easy as it is for people who take photographs."

The Sculpteo app is just one example of how the 3D printing industry is making ease of use, accessibility and awareness a priority this year. “Many understand that this technology exists which lets you convert digital files into physical objects," says Shapeways’ Carmy, "but few know that you can make things in metal or ceramic, that the costs and quality compare with traditional manufacturing technologies, and that you don’t need to know how to design using 3D software to explore.”

With great strides made on the ease of use front, awareness and adoption are the next hurdles to be tackled by the industry.

A Transitional Period

Before any new piece of technology is integrated into the mainstream it goes through a transitional period. Kulkarni compares what 3D printing’s going through now with what happened with the tablet when Apple brought out the iPad. Before the iPad no one knew what a tablet was, let alone what to use it for. Then Apple came along. “Apple didn’t have a tablet that was the best in terms of features”, says Kulkarni, “what it did is it made it extremely easy to use, it made it so intuitive that everybody found a use for it in their lives.” What we’re seeing now with 3D printing is companies making simplified versions and looking for ways to make the technology relevant to people’s lives in the hope of it breaking through.

It’s this ease of use and creating more intuitive interfaces for the user that will encourage people to migrate over to the new technology. And once this barrier is crossed, the movement will start to enter a new phase, a phase that explores the potentials of combining the best attributes from man with those of the machine.

Marcelo Coelho, one half of design studio Zigelbaum + Coelho thinks this is an exciting area that we’re only just beginning to investigate, "The most significant change [from 3D printing] will happen in economics, with the emergence of entirely new markets for design, fabrication, selling, and sharing of one-of-a-kind or customizable objects. It’s also likely that we’d be quite surprised by our future tools themselves and the relationships we will develop with them. Look at Amit Zoran’s FreeD: a hybrid handheld and computer-controlled milling machine that allows the computer to control the overall form of an object while preserving the expressive gesture of the sculptor’s hand. We’ll find great benefits in interleaving the human hand within our sterile, digital fabrication loops.”

Another potential route in for the breakthrough is for already established online communities, like the one surrounding the massively popular game Minecraft, who have already started using the technology to physicalize their passions. “What can supercharge the excitement”, says Carmy, “is how existing networks can use 3D printing to translate their passions into unique, physical objects. The Minecraft community tapped into this with MineToys and Mineways, tools that let enthusiasts create their own printed avatars and objects from the game. By plugging into the Shapeways API, individual communities can create tools for beginners to help them make meaningful things (think Facebook app to let you print 3D versions of your favorite photos).”

Hand-holding is another key factor to adoption, something 3D Systems are embracing by using a coloring book approach, especially with regards to children. “Kids, we think," says Kulkarni, "they don’t want to start with a blank canvas in front of them, they have more of a coloring book mentality, where people want to take a template, change the color of the model, put their name on it and print it—they want a personalized, customized print rather than starting from scratch.”

Sculpteo also note the hand-holding approach, along with the old adage of keeping things simple, “Making 3D printing software and technology as simple as possible is what is key to encouraging newcomers to try our online 3D printing service. For example, complete beginners can download free programs such as Google SketchUp or Blender and upload their 3D files directly onto the Sculpteo website. It is then possible to change the size, color and material of the 3D printed object. We have developed an automatic correction tool which corrects any faults or flaws which could make your final 3D printed object break or unstable, these errors might not be seen on the screen with the naked eye but our technology detects them."

But perhaps before the home revolution comes, the transitional phase will feature an intermediary step. It’s something that David Cranor, founder of formlabs a 3D printing startup, thinks we need to consider, “What is going to be interesting is seeing the intermediate step between pure industrial use and pure at-home use that nobody talks about—the enablement of small design shops, startups, kids with a dream and access to Kickstarter to do wall-to wall product design, fabrication, and sales, finally free from the traditional constraint of needing to work for or with a huge company with huge resources in order to make professional grade products.”

In the heady post-CES euphoria, where companies are eager to get their devices into our homes and onto our desk tops, it’s easy to forget that before that happens this intermediary step may be what ushers in this revolution and normalises the technology. Where local businesses offer the service much like printing shops offered to print files before we all had printers in our homes. Cranor continues, “The implication of this is that even before true at home adoption, we are going to see a massive increase in long-tail style niche and bespoke products with more direct interaction and feedback between designers and users. It’s going to change the way that designers and consumers work together, and blur the line between both. Is my grandma going to have a 3D printer by 2013? Probably not. But my grandma does have another piece of skill-requiring personal fabrication equipment in her house—a sewing machine. 3D printing in the home is gonna happen. It’s just a question of when, and even the intermediate steps are very, very exciting.”