A random question from an interested reader resulted in a curious reverse interview about the future of 3D printing.
Normally we do the interviewing and the subject provides the answers, but today we’re doing the reverse. Our blog was contacted by someone new to the 3D printing world who had a set of questions. We normally answer such questions privately with the correspondent, but the answers to this set were of such interest I felt it useful to publish them, with the questioner’s permission, of course.
Who is the questioner? It’s Graham Rowe (above), who works as a government contractor in Washington, DC. Originally from Jamaica, Rowe now resides in the US and has developed an interest in 3D printing but had some questions. He asked:
My name is Graham, and I'm just diving into the world of 3D printing. I was wondering if I could ask someone on the Fabbaloo team a couple of general questions about the industry?
The questions turned out to be quite interesting. Here they are with my answers:
Graham Rowe: What is preventing 3D printing from becoming a household commodity?
Fabbaloo: I believe it is the 3D design barrier. Yes, the costs of 3D printing are probably too high for most households today, but that’s nothing that can’t be solved by the economy of scale achieved when many people are buying. So then the question becomes, why aren’t consumers buying 3D printers, even if price wasn’t a barrier?
I believe it is because most people have literally no way to specify the exact “thing” they want to print. Most people are not (and could never be) competent 3D designers. Yes, there are tons of 3D model repository sites where one could find plenty of things to 3D print, but are they what is actually desired? In almost all cases, that’s not the case. It’s usually a scenario where the consumer browses the repository in hopes of finding something interesting to print.
That’s not a recipe for success, as people will eventually get tired of 3D printing yet another plastic dragon for their shelf. They need to print USEFUL THINGS for THEIR CURRENT SITUATION.
No one has solved this problem yet. When it is solved, people will then have a good reason to have such equipment in their household.
Graham Rowe: What are the largest online communities of non-professionals [meaning hobbyists] that are interested in 3D printing?
Fabbaloo: For online communities, I strongly suggest hooking up with the forums associated with your equipment manufacturer. Each machine is different in various ways and to learn the quirks of 3D printing you’d best hang out with folks in the same situation. Oh, your 3D printer DOESN’T have an online forum? Maybe consider another equipment option.
I also strongly suggest hanging out at your local makerspace, where you will probably find some type of 3D printers available for experimentation - and with others who know something about the topic. There’s nothing better than getting your hands dirty in the world of 3D printing.
Graham Rowe: Is there any method of 3D printing that is pulling away as the clear winner?
Fabbaloo: No. There are many different processes for achieving 3D prints, and more seem to be developed every month! However, each process has significant advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to you to determine which process is best for your particular application.
Some may say this process is “better” than that one, but the truth is such measurement must always take place opposite the requirements. Sure, a fancy industrial 3D printer might be able to produce a finely detailed 3D print, but what if you want to print a full-size chair? Details don’t matter in that situation. A large-scale metal 3D printer would be useless to produce detailed jewelry. A multi-material full color printer produces terrific output, but that’s of no value to someone on a budget.
Pick the right tool for the job, and ensure your toolkit has plenty of options.
Graham Rowe: Would you describe the hobby scene as completely separate from the industrial 3D printing industry or is there a lot of overlap?
Fabbaloo: There is some overlap, but largely these worlds are distinct. Some folks begin in the hobby area and over time end up in the industrial world due to the requirements of their application (see above).
A relatively new area of overlap concerns the recent increase in quality and performance by less expensive desktop units. Some users of expensive industrial gear have found they can use desktop machines to produce “draft versions” of their models at lower cost than repeatedly running them on the expensive gear.
I think you’ll also find that many of the small desktop 3D printer manufacturers are now shifting their focus towards industrial and professional use, as they’ve all seen the consumer market dry up. The relatively small percentage of the public who are able to do 3D design and work with less-than-reliable desktop 3D printers has been saturated with machines and there’s few others to sell to. Hence the shift towards designers, engineers, educators, and other professionals.
Graham Rowe: Do you think some day people will be making their own designs at home or do you think it will mostly be presets with minor tweaks [like wordpress does with sites]?
Fabbaloo: I believe the eventual answer must be both. 3D design is a very challenging discipline, taking years to become competent. The majority of the public will never undertake that effort. However, there are ways to “generate” 3D models.
A couple of companies are doing this. Both Digital Forming and Uformia (and others) have developed sophisticated software that can take a “base model” and with simple user input, generate the desired 3D model. However, these are not widely deployed solutions.
Ultimately my thought is that someone will create a “universal library” of common objects, each of which can be customized using such technology as desired. Instead of trolling through dozens or hundreds of variations of wrenches, there was just one. One that you could “tweak” to your requirements.
Of course, there is still the barrier of people understanding what their requirements actually are. Sigh.
Graham Rowe: If you could only pick one resource to start with and learn about 3D printing as a hobby and community what would you start with?
Fabbaloo: Sorry, one isn’t enough! I recommend three things to do:
If you can, learn some basic 3D design concepts. There are plenty of free tools to do so, such as Onshape or 123D Design. They each have videos to guide you through the basics. If you understand 3D design, the 3D printing will be easier.
Get your hands on a real 3D printer, perhaps at a local makerspace as suggested above. You can also hang out with a friend who has one. Always try before buying, as you might discover the technology is too much for you to continue.
Get your own low-cost machine when you’re confident to proceed. There are plenty of good options to choose from these days, with more arriving weekly. But having knowledge of 3D design and some experience with a machine will certainly raise the odds of success with your own machine.
Graham Rowe: If you could only go to 3 websites about 3D printing for the rest of your life, what would they be and why?
Fabbaloo: Haha, our blog would certainly be one!
Another would be Thingiverse, which, while gigantic and often confusing, provides a near-endless stream of 3D models from the public to print, examine, be inspired by or to avoid.
For communities and discussions, there is a large group on Google+ dedicated to 3D printing, as well as a huge group on Reddit.
Graham, I hope these answers help you to get started in the amazing, frustrating and powerful world of 3D printing.