Entrepreneur Anil Dash recently posted his thoughts on the world of 3D printing as we find it at the end of year 2011. We agree with most of his propositions, which basically boil down to the fact that personal 3D printing is at the most early stages of development. Here are his positions and our thoughts:
Stop Making Kits. Dash laments the fact that many of the current crop of personal 3D printers are in fact kits, suitable only for those who have the ability, interest and time to build them. We emphatically agree with him here, as there are vastly more people interested in using 3D printers over those who wish to build them. However, at this early stage it's essential that the builder community engages to develop the basics of the technology; the general public cannot. But yes, there will be a switchover at a future point where the "consumers" outnumber the "builders".
Make Teleporters. Dash proposes each 3D printer come equipped with a 3D scanner to assist in gathering 3D content. Great idea, as 3D content makes 3D printers useful, but 3D scanning needs significant development as the 3D scanners of today typically produce very rough 3D models that require much tweaking by someone skilled in 3D modeling. An opening for a great software product here, perhaps?
Avoid Ink Scams. Dash correctly points out that commercial 3D printer manufacturers of today make much of their revenue from sales of proprietary 3D print materials, just like the 2D paper printer manufacturers do. He wants to avoid the same scenario in a future 3D printer world, as we do. However, it's going to be a lot more complicated as the variety of printable materials increases. It's not like ink where the "output" is merely seen. Objects are not only seen but also touched, bent, heated, cooled and subjected many other torturous physical activities, all of which demand a wide variety of materials to match those characteristics. It's complicated and probably will be for a while.
Share Designs. Dash proposes personal 3D printers have a means of sharing designs to increase the content flow and thus usefulness. We agree, but point out there are a ton of ways to accomplish this, through sharing sites, purchased models or even prehistoric email. We're not too concerned about this aspect, since, like any other valuable data on the Internet, efficient ways of sharing will naturally emerge. And then be shut down by the authorities, of course.
Standardize Software. Dash correctly points out that there are scant few standard formats in the world of personal 3D printing these days, aside from the barely usable STL format used by many devices. While there are efforts to improve STL, that's only part of the software standardization question. Machines must somehow reflect their physical configuration back to the software so that appropriate actions can be taken - and there's little action there as far as we know. We think personal 3D printing's software lifecycle is its single biggest barrier these days. Hardware has improved immensely, but the software is still a mess.
We think the equation should be straightforward: easy to operate, assembled 3D printers plus easily found 3D content plus inexpensive material should generate a large industry. The key is highly lubricated software between those aspects.