by Adam B. Levine | Mar.6, 2013

I respect MAKE and the niche they've carved out for themselves, but after the hopes-and-dreams crusher I just read, well.... Sometimes we all take ourselves a little too seriously.

The existing hobbyist-friendly additive prototyping methods tend to produce parts from a very narrow choice of materials, all of which exhibit fairly poor mechanical characteristics; there are no signs that this will change in the coming years....


...In popular view, 3D printers are a tool that will enable us to directly make almost anything; this way of thinking is exemplified by the commercial arms race to deliver FDM machines that print in color. But this pursuit may be misguided: as it is, both 3D printing and CNC machining tends to be more useful for producing tooling patterns – that is, shapes that serve as an input to another, more specialized manufacturing process carried later on.

It's so funny to see a forward looking publication thinking in such an antiquated way. A quick look at the history of computing hardware shows some clear points of similarity between the late 70s, of computing and the last 10 years in 3d printers.

Early machines were barely even computers by modern standards, available at high costs to enthusiasts only. Many were sold as kits, and they first achieved commercial success (The MITS Altair 8800) with about 10,000 units being shipped.

These early, incredibly limited and very expensive efforts sparked the imagination of the next generation of developers (spawning Apple and Microsoft among others) who took the raw functionality and shaped it with user interfaces that gave power to users instead of paralyzing them with unknown variables and archaic rules. Did they invent computing? No. But they did invent a computer usable to a broader class of consumer, and in the early 90s the efforts of those second generation companies began to pay off.

So what we've just described is the story of a technology that took 40ish years of background development, then 20-30 years of escalating enthusiast development being followed by critical success and pervasive adoption ongoing so far.
Sounds an awful lot like 3d printing to me, except we're maybe year 12 of meaningful enthusiast development, and the 2nd tier companies are still going through growing pains.

The Future of Design

What word processor do you use? What desktop publishing software? 20 years ago the answer to that for the average person would have been

"....What? I'm not in publishing"

What used to require specialized training and equipment has today become the business of bundled or inexpensive software present in nearly every modern home. Sub $100 in-home machines produce results better than could have been asked for from professional printers not that long ago.

To the actual points, frankly I don't dispute them

  • CAD is genuinely difficult because we have poor 3d interfaces
  • Mechanical Design requires specific knowledge
  • Mechanical Engineering is a science, and not a simple one.
  • Manufacturing Processes require specific knowledge when designing for them.

The way things are now, today, this is all wildly correct - It's the assumption that "this is the way things are, so get used to it" which I take issue with.

CAD is hard, but it's because we're using interface devices designed 20 years ago for rudimentary 2d interaction. Doesn't matter how much you upgrade that horse and buggy, it'll never be as fast as a modern automobile.

I'm happy to report that is changing really really fast. Here are some examples of inexpensive, accessible, upcoming consumer devices targeted at that exact niche; giving finesse, control, and ultimately creative power to the user. Sound familiar?


The other three points are really all the same one - You need special training in order to follow the applicable standards and "do it right". In this world of embedded computing, what a strange thing to lament over.

It's HARD to fly a high speed jet. The number and complexity of the variables a pilot has to contend with is an intense load for any person, and the amount of time available to make decisions when you're cruising at mach .85 is not enough. Embedded computing (autopilot) steps in to fill the holes in the pilots knowledge. It listens to sensors and makes decisions based on contextual instructions from an enormous database of rules that make up the complexity of "how to fly the plane". Is the pilot meaningless to the operation of the vehicle? Of course not - The Autopilot is just a bunch of If-then statements (I'm obviously simplifying), whereas the human brain in the seat provides the perspective and analysis for the big decisions, like which way to point the plane.

A more direct example would be the Bridge Project series, which is a "game" that lets you build bridges and test their functionality for points. In "Expert Mode" things are like you would expect; you can do just about anything and lots of combinations result in failing. In "Simple Mode" the game puts constraints on your available abilities, firmly nudging you in the direction of structures that could work. This "Simplified Operation" paradigm is and will be seen more and more.

The point is, it didn't start out that way with autopilots and bridge design - As more people run into barriers there will be a small percentage who become passionate about the problem and work to build the solutions that will simplify things for everyone. Specialized knowledge is only specialized until a tool is created which knows all the rules, and takes that responsibility off the individual. We become Users, not Operators.

What we have now is CAD (Computer Assisted Design), where we're going is HAD (Human Assisted Design).

Better Materials are one accidental discovery away

The Crux of my Thesis is you can't predict what direction things are going to go with 3d printing, but given all the pairs of excited and actively developing hands on the problem it seems naive to assume things will stay the same.

Sure, the materials available in filament form are few for the moment, but until the last few years the machines themselves were quite limited in selection? Did that stay the same?

To look at efforts like those to "print in color" as being just about multi-colored items misses the point that the delivery infrastructure for blending and layering colors is logically complementary to mixing or layering different materials. Am I sure it will translate and be useful? Of course not, but it's exactly this type of tinkering and experimenting that results in unforeseen breakthroughs which are, by definition, unforeseeable.

Five years ago we were thrilled to be working with ABS, PLA, and PVA. But as the userbase grows with those as the only available options, it's like presenting an artist with only a sharpy marker or crayon. Limiting.

And again we're reminded it doesn't have to be this way, so it won't be for long - The range of plastics available in our modern world is enormous, and in today's economy lean companies are hungry for new markets.

Perhaps the greatest potential for innovation is in the eco-friendly plastics space - A recent FTC ruling has basically outlawed most of the terms and practices generally associated with "Green" materials. Right now the market for filament is small in relative terms, but at current prices it's also outrageously lucrative - Resin pellets cost a few dollars per kg to purchase from a manufacturer, it's the limited availability that drives the price of the extruded product up to $30/kg or more.

When you have an unbalanced situation like that, those high prices sends out signals screaming

"Start making and selling filament because it's worth your time"

I know of at least one new extrusion line working out the kinks for a late spring launch who will be selling into the market at $20-22/kg, a 30% reduction in cost from the lowest prices I can find. Not bad.

You are Here.

The road ahead is full of wrong turns, diversions and dead ends, I'm not claiming anything else. The more people who join our crusade, the greater our chances of breaking through the maze of potential to find the land of ability.

Douglas Adams said:
"It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious. The cry 'I could have thought of that' is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn't, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too."

So tell all your friends and if you're passionate, don't wait for permission - Just get to work.





Posted in 3D Printing Technology

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GuB wrote at 9/20/2013 7:18:58 PM:

The problem with 3D printer is that when I take a look around me, take an object at random and think "Is it practical to 3D print this instead of buying it", the answer is usually "no", with decorative objects often being the exception. To account for a possible future where good quality 3D printers are widespread, I assume that I can do anything a professional service like shapeways can do and maybe more, for almost free and in at most a few hours of time. The problem usually is at least one of the followng : - printing can only provide parts that need a relatively complex assembly process to make a finished product - 3D printing will never be as efficient as intustrial processes where economies of scale can be made. On mass produced items barely above the price of bulk material, it matters. - major parts of the item cannot be printed, such as electronic components - items contains a large variety of materials, each one having specific properties difficult to reproduce with other materials (such as strength, electrical conductivity, transparency, flexibility, cost, stickyness, ...)

Adam B. Levine wrote at 3/8/2013 12:53:18 AM:

Mark Young: The biggest hurdle in the way of hardware is unexpired patents - The technology and techniques have already been developed, they're just locked away for another few years (6 for a few, and 10 for a bunch more). I'm confident in the meantime new technologies will be developed, the kickstarter culture helps make that a real possibility. Recycling plastic in general just isn't something that happens. I worked in the environmentally friendly foodservice packaging industry for five years, and it's a running joke how the plastic bags recycled in Florida gets shipped by the shipload to China where they burn it in waste-to-energy generators. Uncontaminated plastic is relatively easy to recycle, but hardly any applications produce "waste" that isn't contaminated, thus it can't be effectively recycled. You're not wrong on injection molding - 3d printing is by no means a replacement for tooling-based manufacturing in some situations... But there are lots of things you can't do when even the smallest design change requires a new $40,000+ mold. Also, FDM does not equal 3d printing - It's just the most available consumer variety of the tech right now. Abhijit Anand Prabhudan: Interface is the most important part of consumer-facing technology, and for 3d printing it's just non-existent right now. Entering the hobby as a novice means you either become an expert at a variety of software and hardware systems, or you've got an expensive paperweight. Jeff: I think you nailed it, once creation is easy anyone who wants to create will do it. If they don't want to create, nothing changes for them. I love solutions that let individuals decide what they want to do for themselves, and then do it.

Jeff wrote at 3/7/2013 6:28:02 PM:

The critics that contend that 3d printers will remain nitch / hobbiest / prototype machines due to engineering complexity of what they build are missing the big picture. Novels are hard to write (at least successful ones are), but not everyone who owns a printer at home writes a novel. Professional photography and professional level phot editing is a hard skill to master, but not everyone who owns a digital camera does it at those levels. Accounting & tax preperation are difficult and involved skills, but people who use commercial tax software don't need to know either. Computer programming is difficult, yet few computer owners know how to program and they still find use (and enjoyment) from thier computers. Many eventual users of 3d printers will very likely never "design" anything. They will be more than content to shop the web, finding designs of items that interest them, and buying the rights to print 1, 2 or a dozen of the item. Replacement parts for home appliances. Decorative hardware. Art objects. Utilitatarian things like flatware & small containers. As the costs come down (both of materials and printers) and capabilities improve, people will use them to make at home things that before they would have traveled to the store to buy or had shipped to them.

Abhijit Anand Prabhudan wrote at 3/7/2013 12:15:58 PM:

That's what I was thinking as well. Innovation in design tool interface and material ecology will unleash true mass application potential for 3d printing. Projects like Morpholio trace, endless forms, handypotter, 3doodler, spacetop interface points to it.

Mark Young wrote at 3/7/2013 11:45:34 AM:

3D printing is still a slow, inefficient and energy hungry way of producing certain things. Changes in mindset and software are certainly on their way but always comparing mechanical developments with computational developments seems overoptimistic. Composite parts are fantastically useful but fantastically difficult to recycle. They are also often more difficult to repair so they will not be the answer to everything. Injection moulded parts still lead the way in terms of quality and strength.

Adam B. Levine wrote at 3/6/2013 11:16:52 PM:

Thanks Christopher!

Christopher Barnatt wrote at 3/6/2013 9:05:35 PM:

Excellent article.

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