In many ways the evolution of 3D printers follows the path taken by automobiles.
Let’s wind the clock back 50 years and take a look at the vehicles sold at that time. Yes, they included the basics such as an engine, wheels, seats, body and windows, as vehicles still do today.
But let’s look a bit deeper. What features were not on those vehicles? I can think of many:
- Airbags: which were not required until safety protests occurred in the 1970’s
- Audio systems: Perhaps you could optionally purchase an AM radio, but that’s about it
- Powered windows: A default today, but not then
- Heated seats: You had to buy a separate pad to keep your butt warm
- High efficiency engines: Gasoline was cheap, so engines were simpler
- Trip odometer: No need to know how far you’ve gone
- Fold-down seats: If you wanted more space, buy a station wagon!
And so on. If you were to look through a new vehicle today you’d see countless small features, each of which emerged over a great many years. Gradually these features, which originally appeared as fantastical and frequently pricey options, now seem to be a default expectation of every car buyer, even for the lowest price options. I don’t think you can find a vehicle with manually controlled windows anymore.
You get the point. Back to 3D printing.
When the first desktop 3D printers emerged almost ten years ago they might have been viewed in a similar light: they consumed material, produced objects, and that’s about it.
Operating a 3D printer then was far more manual than one could imagine today. I’ve seen multiple features be introduced and over time they’ve become default expectations from most buyers.
What features? These are features that were once considered impossible to obtain, or at least optional, but now seem to be default capabilities:
Assembly: The first desktop 3D printers were invariably kits, usually composed of hundreds of small parts and wires, making it incredibly challenging for most of the public to get involved.
Autoleveling: The bane of early desktop 3D printer users, unleveled beds caused many print failures, but that phenomenon is almost gone with the introduction of automation to calibration processes.
Enclosures: Early machines, and a few current machines, are not enclosed. But more advanced machines tend to be to capture stray heat and offer a higher ambient temperature during 3D printing operations, increasing reliability.
Smarts: Early machines required wired connections to a computer because they were so incredibly dumb they could not even run themselves and had to use another processor as brains. Now machines can run themselves.
Networking: While most machines still offer USB or SD card ports for manually delivering GCODE files for printing, many machines now include wireless and wired networking as default features.
Adhesion Systems: The first desktop machines simply had a cold metal or acrylic plate, usually warpy, on which your prints were supposed to stick. They did not. Now there are a variety of highly effective methods of ensuring prints stick.
Heated Print Surface: More advanced systems introduced heated print surfaces to stop thermoplastics from warping and detaching from the surface and failing the print. Now almost all but the smallest machines have heated print beds.
Color Touch Screen: The earliest machines had no control interface whatsoever and any information to be had was seen through a computer interface. That moved to tiny LCD panels and then eventually to large sized, color touch screen interfaces, making life a lot easier.
These features are more or less standard features you’d expect to see on any desktop 3D printer these days, unless it is an ultra low-cost machine.
Is this the end of the story? By no means: the addition of features, like we saw with automobiles, is a continuous process. As we speak more features are moving towards becoming standard features on desktop 3D printers. Here are some of the ones I see becoming more frequently seen, and perhaps even may become defaults.
High Temperature: In order to use more capable materials, higher temperatures are required to soften these thermoplastics. This is something increasingly seen in machines as vendors compete for attention from engineers.
Material Tuning: In order to achieve the best quality print, you must use the precisely correct 3D print parameters when using a specific material. But there are many machines and many materials. Now we see the beginnings of a trend of 3D printer manufacturers partnering with material manufacturers to bundle in these parameters so that the best results are automatically obtained. This could and should be a standard features.
Cloud: Just as the addition of a PC added brains to a dumb desktop 3D printer, the addition of a cloud network with limitless accessory services could supercharge 3D printing. Eventually every 3D printer will have this feature.
Dual Extrusion: Many machines now offer dual extrusion, the ability to 3D print in more than one material, sometimes with independent extruders. While you can then 3D print in two colors, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s really about using dissolvable support material in one of the extruders, making it possible to 3D print highly complex geometries without any worry about support structures. Just dunk in water when printing completes.
Filament Out Detection: An overnight long 3D print fails when the filament unexpectedly runs out, and the printer “air prints” for hours. This expensive and time consuming problem could be extinguished if 3D printer manufacturers offer simple detectors that pause the print when the end of the filament is seen. Quite a few machines offer this feature now, and it should be a standard.
Power Recovery: Similar to filament out problems, an instantaneous loss of power can ruin a 24 hour 3D print, again costing time and money. Some machines now offer a battery backup system in which short power outages are avoided with use of local power, much like attaching a UPC to your equipment might do. Again, this should be a standard feature.
That is not the end; there will be dozens of other features emerging that we cannot yet imagine. Some of them will most certainly make their way into the “standard features” that buyers will expect to see when browsing product catalogs.