Why do we need an open mainstream platform for 3D printing applications | by Ersin Akinci | Sep 2021
Last week I returned from RAPID + TCT, the largest annual conference for the 3D printing industry in North America, and saw the future of the field:
- Large industrial machines printing incredibly complex materials that cannot be made with traditional methods (e.g. mesh, metamaterials)
- Large industrial machines printing a lot of things on a factory scale
- Large industrial machines communicating with each other
Did you get the theme? Large industrial machines.
It might surprise you if you’ve casually followed 3D printing for the past five or ten years. You probably think 3D printers look like this:
I spoke to the Inkbit team who made the industrial printers in the second photo. At their booth, I played with a Jello-like membrane, a 3cm x 3cm lattice structure made from a proprietary silicone material that crumbles and comes alive when you push it.
As I held the synthetic tampon in my hand, I told myself that I was looking at something truly new in the history of mankind, a material that, until now, could never have existed because we didn’t have the technology to make it.
New and complex materials made by big machines invented by brilliant scientists and engineers for cutting-edge users, pushing the boundaries of science and engineering. On the exhibition floor, at conference sessions and at after parties, I’ve been told over and over again, this is the future of 3D printing. Not just any sub- $ 1000 toy you bought to print a Batman figurine.
My stubborn response? To introduce every engineer, entrepreneur and salesperson I have come across the idea of a new consumer printer under $ 1,000.
Opportunity in the consumer space of 3D printing
As the world of professional 3D printing has consolidated around industrial use cases, a huge divide has formed in the consumer space.
Hobbyist printers like the popular Creality Ender 3 ($ 179), pictured above, are cheap and fun to start up with, but they freeze up quickly, print unevenly, and require a lot of tweaking to get mediocre results. Even high-end consumer printers like the Prusa i3 MK3S + ($ 999), used for serious prototyping and batch printing, aren’t “print and forget” machines. No one has created a consumer 3D printer as easy to use as a 2D paper printer.
Building better hardware is the easiest place to start. Create an Ender 3 that doesn’t come out of the factory with a warped bed and a crooked frame, causing so many prints to fail. Or for high-end printers with better quality control, add quality of life features like better connectivity or simple performance upgrades like closures that protect prints from drafts. (The latter is getting more and more popular, like on Creality’s new Ender 6.)
However, the biggest opportunity in 3D printing is in software.
Whether you use a $ 100 printer or a $ 100,000 printer, your workflow today is essentially the same: design a 3D CAD model (or download one), then print it. While this process may be perfect for industrial and professional users, most consumers don’t care about CAD, model uploading, or even the concept of a 3D model. What interests them is the end result, which they can hold in their hands.
That’s why we need an open mainstream platform for 3D printing applications. We need a world where any React or iOS or Android developer can trivially add 3D printing capabilities to their projects.
Did you beat a really tough boss in level 15 of your phone game? Tap here to print your personalized trophy. Shopping at your hardware store and can’t find the screw you need (or better yet, you don’t want to go to the store for a screw)? Click here to print it. Are you paying your cart about to buy a watch? Perhaps you would like a personalized holder that perfectly matches your new watch.
Video games and e-commerce are obvious examples, but the best part of an open platform is that developers would be on a rampage to come up with apps that we can’t even think of today. These will be the software equivalents of Inkbit’s silicone stamp demo, something that didn’t exist because we never had the means to produce it.
An open application platform would fundamentally change our perception of 3D printing, just as 3D printing has changed our perception of manufacturing. Printing doesn’t just have to be an industrial process with a single workflow, it can become an infinitely flexible medium for expressing ideas.
Why the time for consumer 3D printing has arrived
If an open 3D printing applications platform is a given, why isn’t it yet?
The main reason is that there is no market for it today. Almost no one owns a 3D printer, and with everything affordable printers need to get decent prints, why would they? But I suspect the situation will change soon.
A colleague from RAPID + TCT explained to me how 3D printing is rapidly climbing the slope of enlightenment and approaching the productivity plateau on the Gartner Hype Cycle. For him and most industry professionals, the real productivity boost lies in making premium materials that cannot be made with any other technique – and when it comes to industrial uses, the pros are right.
Consumer 3D printing has followed its own cycle of hype over the past 15 years. Disillusionment followed premature announcements in the 2010s of “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” and that every household would soon have a Star Trek replicator. What we got instead were toys that can print action figures. Investors were burnt, the tech media turned gloomy, and the world went on from what seemed like a fad.
Yet over the past 10 years, many important developments in the consumer space have gone under the radar. Open source designs like Core-XY have dramatically improved print speeds and reliability. State-of-the-art nozzles can print with super strong carbon fiber filaments – indeed, carbon fiber, glass, metal, ceramic, wood and other exotic filaments are available where we did not have before. than fragile PLA or toxic ABS. OctoPrint and RepRap firmware has totally changed printing workflows. And some of Stratasys (IBM’s of 3D printing) key patents, such as heated build chambers, have expired, allowing printers to be built using advanced materials like polycarbonate or PEEK.
Hobbyists have already leveraged these developments for real-world business cases. There’s a whole cottage industry on Etsy, for example, of entrepreneurs printing figurines, housewares, and jewelry 24/7 using fully automated workflows with almost no downtime. YouTubers describe side businesses that make carbon fiber auto parts for local repair shops that fit into real cars on the road. An army of Enders, Prusas, and other heavily modified hobbyist machines profitably fuel all that impression.
These developments have convinced me that the time has come for consumer 3D printing. The whole space looks like computers in the late ’70s with Wozniaks sewing standard parts in their garages. The technology is finally here, what we need is a Jobs to integrate and refine their efforts and ship the Apple II.
What made the Apple II so powerful was the consumer software that could run on it, like VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet and killer app. I don’t know what the mainstream killer app for 3D printing will be, but I do know that to build it we need an open platform. This platform will be built around consumer hardware, not industrial machinery, by anyone who can fit it into a cheap, reliable and attractive mass-market device.
All the pieces are lying around in the garage. Let’s build it and ship it 🚀.