It may be symptomatic of our times but the delta between weak signal & fast-moving trend seems to be getting shorter & shorter. Compelling innovations are bootstrapped rapidly into full-fledged solutions, enabling a highly-efficient lab-to-home ecosystem. While it’s been percolating for years, the emergence of consumer 3D printing really only landed on the hype cycle in the past 12 months or so but in this time there have been considerable advances.
There seems to be a legitimate consumer trend emerging to enable lightweight, distributed manufacturing of at least rudimentary objects. This trend is drawing capital into the innovation pipeline and pushing the tech forward with better, simpler desktop printers, lower price-points for high-end additive & subtractive printers, and greater strength and stability of substrate materials.
Large legacy players are beginning to flex their muscle in order to defend the markets they’ve patiently carved out for the last decade or three. Patent wars and M&A consolidation will shape the emerging ecosystem as much as innovation. In DIY garage labs, tinkerers & makers are pushing the tech into new territory whether or not the manufacturers (or policy makers) approve. In the middle, the consumer market is being slowly educated about 3D modeling, reality capture, and 3D printing while service providers start to wake up to the opportunities in helping consumers move into the era of personal manufacturing. The distribution of home printers, local tech hubs, and enterprise-scale print services will likely reflect the growing competence of this young market in fully grokking the complexities of 3D.
To this end, Autodesk, hot off this year’s Autodesk University, has been developing a suite of consumer apps that are starting to look like a lightweight toolchain for the 3D print pipeline. With their 123D line of tools, a user can use 123D Catch to capture a rough 3D mesh of a real-world object, like a small statue. Send the mesh into 123D Design to clean it up, 123D Sculpt to smooth out the curves, and then send it off to their partners at Shapeways for printing (or elsewhere for laser cutting or CNC milling, if you need some real engineering tolerances). When you’re done, Shapeways will sell it for you in their online marketplace. Autodesk is betting that they have the tools and talent to educate a new set of hobbyist makers and 3D modelers. And of course, they hope to move some of those folks into the professional tier of the Autodesk platform. [However, more than anyone else, Minecraft may be educating the next wave of 3D modelers…]
As Autodesk works to warm up a new base of skilled creators, hardware manufacturer’s are heating up a war to win the desktop. MakerBot has a new flagship desktop printer just as Cubify is grabbing more attention with their competitive offering. The difference is that Cubify is owned by 3D Systems – arguably the largest fish in the 3D printing pond. They’ve recently announced a patent suit against another newcomer, Formlabs, for infringing in on a 3D Systems patent for sterelithography. 3D Systems has seen its stock price soar over the past year and they certainly intend to defend and capitalize on that trend.
And yet it’s unclear if desktop 3D printing will win out in the same way that it’s oft-cited predecessor will. Though there are analogs, printing paper was a much simpler proposition for most, especially after PostScript came along to normalize it all. But 3D is a whole other beast. Certainly in the near term it will be more common for niche makers to work with a local tech hub like TechShop and Maker’s Factory who’ve already invested the capital to gear up with the latest and greatest 3D print hardware. The Maker’s only have to build the mesh and then send it to the printer. In this scenario, the mesh itself becomes a product. Why buy a new toy from Mattel when you can download a model from some cutting-edge kid in Seoul and print it out yourself? A strong ecosystem honors the professional content creators while building a distribution channel through which they can sell to less-skilled consumers. Office supply chain, Staples, see’s a future in this workflow. They recently announced a plan to offer in-store on-demand 3D printing, shifting the balance slightly away from the desktop.
The consumerization of 3D printing is deeply appealing to the masses. It gives us hope for The Jetson’s “on-demand everything” printer, especially as it begins to converge with bio & nano fabrication. But is this really a good thing? As future’s researcher Scott Smith notes in his blog, Changeist, an era of widespread, cheap consumer-driven 3D printing could produce another cycle of landfill crapjects and downstream print waste. It will also enable local production of even more dangerous products, like 3D-printed guns. As the hype cycle wears off it will be incumbent on industry & policy to navigate these waters and work to manage such outcomes.
For better or for worse, modeling in 3D is hard. It will take many years to educate a sustainable market of prosumer 3D makers. But there are other ways to build a mesh. Reality capture is a methodology and toolset to scan objects and translate them into 3D models. The aforementioned 123D Catch mobile app from Autodesk does this. You use your phone to scan an object and then the Autodesk cloud crunches it and transforms it into a mesh and texture. Earthmine is doing this on a grand scale, driving around their Google-esque cars with MARS collectors on their roofs, grabbing full XYZ coords for every pixel. Recently acquired by Nokia, Earthmine is building a massive dataset that effectively represents every point of every surface in a city. Turn this data into a mobile layer interface and you can pretty much draw anything you want as a world overlay with millimeter precision. Earthmine – and Nokia – now has a virtual representation of much of the urban environment. The hugely-popular Kinect from Microsoft is a reality capture device, using infra-red to build depth maps of everything it sees. It’s being used to scan objects for 3D printing, and to map interiors and reconstruct them as virtual representations. As both Nokia and Microsoft realize, aligning the virtual world with the physical draws the cloud out of its servers and onto the face of reality.
An example of where all this can come together is the work of Chris Thorpe. He owns a historic steam engine, called Winifred, built in 1885. In his efforts to restore and record the beautiful beast, he’s worked with Digital Surveys, a company specializing in high-quality laser scans for industrial facilities, to scan his steam engine into 3d space. They scanned the engine to generate a point cloud, and from that they built a solid mesh. The resulting models are stunningly clean and accurate. With such a sophisticated representation they not only have a remarkable historic artifact preserved and shared but they are now printing their own replacements parts to keep her running (with the help of Shapeways). This type of restoration process could become universally available, enabling a new wave of reconditioning and home maintenance. (As an aside, my uncle was using a CNC mill in his garage to machine his own engineered parts for high-performance RC helicopters. This was in the very early 1990’s, iirc.)
It’s easy to see that much of the excitement about 3D printing is due to how innately disruptive it is to the many industries that have benefitted from their own scarcity for so long. When you can print replacement parts to fix a broken radiator, that is deeply threatening to many interests. Likewise, when a clique of rogue separatists design and machine the next super gun or weird bomb, and then share the schematics online, the dynamics of power shift perceptibly. Industrial stalwarts and national policymakers will try to contain the threat and defend the interests of the incumbent class. And yet, in an age of austerity and inequity this type of utility is extremely valuable to the majority of people trying to get by amidst relative scarcity. Reality capture makes the world easily translatable into fungible data, and 3D printing promises to empower individuals and communities to take greater control over their own economic destiny. Together, these technologies are converging to make the expression of imagination and innovation easier and more powerful than ever before.