A Cold And Rational Analysis of 3D Printing

So I have seen a 3D printer in action when my friend Doug got one.  I have speculated on the impact of these devices economically, professionally, and for geek culture.  I can say, after experiencing one that one of my major conclusion is that it is REALLY FREAKIN’ COOL.

My friend got a Replicator (http://store.makerbot.com/replicator-404.html) from MakerBot (http://www.makerbot.com/), and has been using it for about two weeks.  Having seen it in action, I have to say that you don’t really “get” 3D printing until you see it work, smell the plastic, worry the cats are going to play with the printer, and hold the results in your hands.

There’s something visceral about the experience when you’re there.  My friend went to Thingiverse (http://www.thingiverse.com/) to get some designs and began printing them, specifically a Heart Gears (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:12208) for Mother’s day.  He had printed some of it when I came to visit, and throughout the evening, he continued to print and assemble parts (this is not exactly fast).  Then, in the end, it was done, from image to reality.

And then, I “got it.”

The 3D printer is not a “thing” it is the end result of several phenomena coming together.  Yes, it’s 3D printing technology, (specifically a guided nozzle spinning out plastic thread from a loop).  The printer is also something that connects easily to a computer.  It runs software that uses common formats that many people can create.  These files can be posted anywhere, and there are already sites with plenty of them.

It all came together with me holding a gift for Mother’s Day that had come out of a roll of plastic thread, a website, and an odd gizmo.

This is powerful.

It’s not something people are going to “get” easily until they see it.  When people do see items made, when they perceive the power of 3D printing, then it’s going to be very real to them.  I’m testimony to that (I’m fighting the urge to look for a spare $1750 already).

3D Printing already has enough motion that it’s more a matter of time for it to take off.  A few things that could accelerate it (and that’s both a warning and a hint):

  • Prominent use on television.
  • Displays in stores like Best Buy or Fry’s that show it’s power.
  • Appearances at large convention events (hint, hint).
  • Any prominent media mention (I already saw this in the news today).

People making 3D printers with a bit of work could easily make a craze.

You may be skeptical, but when you see it work . . . it’s hard to describe.

However a few things are also needed for the technology:

  • The tech I’ve seen is pretty friendly, but still on a “hobbyist” level – you need to have some level of aptitude to get it.  Easier-to-use tech is needed.
  • Better tutorials would be useful.
  • Price.  Trust me, the Replicatior is drop-dead amazing, but it’s still hard to justify $1750, though trust me I am trying.  Other printers are more costly, though some come as kits (which, trust me, won’t go mainstream).

Still, I am convinced – 3D printing will have its time.  I’ve seen the future, and it smells of plastic and moves in a way that really distracts cats.

Steven Savage