Trendwatch – Fabbing is on the radar

ZDnet Between the Lines Blog – Emerging Trends: 3D printing; robots galore; human augmentation.

If you’re new to the blog, you may wonder why I’m writing about this. You can quietly disregard the robot and human augmentation part (unless you’re truly intrigued). It’s the 3D printing, personal manufacturing, rapid prototyping part — this is all the stuff we’re fascinated with and truly see as a core part of how we will make and buy things in the future. From the 2007 Gartner Symposium/ITXpo in Orlando, Jackie Fenn presented the emerging trends they see on their IT radar in the next 10 years:

radar1.png via ZDnet

I’d like to draw your attention to 3D printers in the 5 – 10 year range:

Personal manufacturing and fabbing: Fenn says that 3D printers will be coming to a Kinko’s near you in the not too distant future. Today, these printers are used for industrial prototyping, product designs and architectural models. But there is a growing hobbyist movement. In a few years, you’ll see home-based printing of replacement parts. Your kids will print out models of their avatars. These printers, which come from companies like Z Corporation, are in the $20,000 price range–the price range where laser printers got their start. Timeline: 5 to 10 years.

I’d like to think this will happen much closer to 5 years rather than 10 (see earlier post on The Next Disrupters and Commerical 3D Compact Printers Coming Soon). More accessible and affordable 3D printers are around even now – from DIY versions from Fab@Home & RepRap, to Desktop Factory and 3D Systems V-Flash compact, which was launched last month.

For the Ponoko community, the exchanging of designs with the ability to manufacture at home or at a local 3D printing shop is where we want to be. At the moment, current digital manufacturing technologies are right up there allowing us to do some fantastic work. But when fabbers hit mainstream, we’ll be ready (and so will Ponoko users!).

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At Art Center College of Design, we print approximately 5000 parts a year using 3D printers, so it’s a little hard to understand what Gartner means when they put it 5-10 years away. Certainly it’s here today as a viable technology. Mass market maybe?

By the way, it seems like we cut 5000 parts a day on our laser cutters. Maybe it’s just 500…. depends on the day!

Thanks for the comment Michael. I think there would be large groups of people who would be very surprised to hear you say that. That’s also reflected in Gartner’s point of view, in that if 70% of the population haven’t heard of it then it still hasn’t arrived.

By “surprised” I mean surprised to hear you use your 3d printers so much Michael. It’s places on the cutting edge of design like Art Center who are obviously showing their students the technology but the average person on the street still struggles to believe it.

Hi Michael,

I enjoyed your post about 3D printers and thanks for the heads up on Gartner’s research findings. We’ve seen multiple shops around the country that are starting to let engineers and architects upload their digital files and then FedEx the physical objects. Your comment about the technology coming to the average user via a Kinko’s is dead on.
However, we’ve found that the digital files can be extremely picky to work with depending on the user’s technical ability. Hopefully this will get easier with time.
As a result of these current challenges, many companies are focusing on a particular niche like product design and architecture models.
Hopefully, this technology will all result in better designs and better understanding as people communicate their ideas in 3D.

Thanks for the input Jake. No doubt about it the digital files can be picky to work with and could pose a large barrier to entry for mainstream users who aren’t technical enough… yet. There are some ideas on the horizon though that we think will overcome that issue fairly quickly. We also think printing objects is more like driving than printing on paper. By that analogy I mean that when you were 15 you wanted to get your driver’s license despite the technical difficulty because it was cool to drive and it would change your world. Printing objects is similar, there is technical barrier but a LOT of people will strive to overcome that because of the coolness factor.

Hi Steven,
Great point and analogy about the coolness factor…3-D printers are definitely amazing for that. The more I thought about your comment, it makes a lot of sense to me that people who create a very cool design will go through considerable time and effort to see it come to life. That emotional connection is very powerful.

I should also be careful to point out that the file issues we’ve seen deal mainly with the “STL” file format needed for 3-D printers. I’ve seen some impressive software called Magics from Materialise (Belgium software company) that can fix files fairly quickly but it is very expensive for a single license. I think it’s much easier to work in 2-D digital format and make the transition to a physical design using CNC and laser cutters.

I think it’s great that Ponoko is providing an outlet for the common user to create and design in 3-D. Everybody should have access to this type of technology for their own use. As software and hardware manufacturers make it easier to play with these tools, the future looks very bright.

Thanks for keeping up the conversation and best of luck!

Thank for the comments Jake! I really appreciate it. This is a tough idea to grasp (it was for me), but like most new ideas there are going to be a small group of people who jump in first and who hopefully spread it to their friends and family. By keeping up the conversation we’re hoping we get more and more of those people involved. Don’t be shy about letting us know if there is anything in particular you’d like us to discuss.

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