3D Printing, Teleporters and Wishes
December 21, 2011
I've been infatuated with 3D printing for a few years now; the rise of (NYC's own!) MakerBot and other startups offering simple ways to create physical objects as easily as we create paper output from our computers is extraordinarily exciting. I have no doubt that, in a few years, you'll be able to go to Best Buy on Black Friday and when you buy a new computer, they'll throw in a 3D printer for free.
But that being said, I don't think we're on the path to widespread adoption and success for 3D printers yet, and while I've had this conversation with Bre at MakerBot as well as some other influential folks in the space, I thought I'd jot down my notes as a sort of wishlist for where I hope the 3D fabrication and printing world is headed.
- Stop Making Altairs: You know that famous mugshot of Bill Gates? It was taken in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not in Redmond or Silicon Valley or any other tech center. Know why? Because that was where Microsoft was founded. And Microsoft was founded there so that it could be close to MITS, makers of the Altair, the first broadly successful personal computer to be sold. Well, actually, it wasn't a computer — it was a kit to build a computer. (You can still buy a version of the kit.) It wasn't until other manufacturers (notably Apple, with its first computer) started to integrate these pieces into being more finished products and less do-it-yourself kits that larger adoption of personal computers took off. Today, most 3D printing hardware feels closer to a kit that needs to be assembled than it does to a finished product, and even though you can order pre-assembled devices, the fit-and-finish of the hardware hasn't made the leap that Apple did between the Apple I and the Apple II. I'm sure this will happen soon, but it's the biggest obstacle to wider adoption of 3D printing, now that costs have come down.
- The Teleporter: Every 3D printer should seamlessly integrate a 3D scanner, even if it makes the device cost much more. The reason is simple: If you set the expectation that every device can both input and output 3D objects, you provide the necessary fundamentals for network effects to take off amongst creators. But no, these devices are not "3D fax machines". What you've actually made, when you have an internet-connected device that can both send and receive 3D-printed objects, is a teleporter. I know that sci-fi nerds will point out that this is hardly teleportation, since you're cloning the shape of the original object rather than actually sending the original object somewhere. But sci-fi correctness is not nearly as useful for the 3D printing industry as a totally futuristic concept that can get normal people excited. Imagine a simple television ad with a clean, well-designed (not a kit!) device saying "when you lose the wheel for your kid's toy car, her friend can teleport her a replacement".
- A Service, Not An Ink Scam: Today, printing in 2D sucks. It doesn't work, and when it does, it just obligates you to waste tons of money on consumables like ink and toner, which the printer companies rip you off for. On top of that, printer companies are among the worst when it comes to building super-complicated Printer Management Suites that install tons of stupid software on your computer that does nothing useful, instead of simply enabling you to generate output. There's a chance to leave that behind with 3D printing. Buying these new, consumer-friendly teleporters could simply have a fixed monthly (or yearly, or lifetime) cost which includes all of the consumables that are needed to run the device. Now, this isn't cheap — the plastics and materials that are used in forming 3D objects are pretty expensive today. But what's worse than them being expensive is that they're a pain in the ass to find. You can't buy them at Staples. So instead, smart simple software that comes with your teleporter should know when you're low on teleportation ink, and just automatically send you a replacement cartridge. Do a quick estimation of how much the average user will use in consumables for the year, and bundle the cost into the device, or offer it as a simple subscription. These are going to be premium products at first, and that's okay!
- Stay Connected: As implied by the fact that teleportation ink would be automatically reordered from the manufacturer, the new generation of devices has to be connected to the Internet in smarter ways! First, each device should automatically share the 3D plans for whatever's being printed with all the other owners of the device, unless someone marks their creation as private. That way, the default is for objects that are printed or teleported to be available for remixing, right from the start — it's a lot easier to modify someone else's 3D creation than it is to make one from scratch. Second, these teleporters should have a simple way (maybe just an email address?) for your friends who also own the device to send you their creations — a physical, but still digital, inbox. I had always thought of this as a great way for people to have a sort of "Christmas morning" experience every day as they see what their friends have sent them overnight, and I think the reaction of those of us who've been excited about BERG's Little Printer has really proven the potential of that idea.
- Printing Powers Platforms: The other evening, I tweeted about my nostalgia for old dot-matrix printers. The physicality of the devices, their longevity, and the fact that some key models are still being sold virtually unchanged in form nearly two decades after their introductions demonstrate just some of the virtues of these old workhorses. They've persisted for one key reason: The way they physically impact the page makes them uniquely well suited to a lot of industrial and business applications — you can't make multiple carbon copies of a page on a laser printer. But there's a far more subtle, and interesting underpinning to why industrial and line-of-business applications were made to run with these printers in the first place. About twenty years ago, most mainstream commercial application developers were making the transition from DOS to Windows. And, aside from the usability advantages of the GUI and the new marketing power Microsoft brought to bear in promoting the whole ecosystem, one of the most pragmatic reasons to make the shift was simply so that software developers wouldn't have to create their own print drivers. In the DOS world, printing was a problem every developer had to solve from scratch when making an application. Standardization and efficiencies around printing were one of the first huge platform advantages that helped shift developer momentum to Windows, but today no mainstream platform has even remotely standardized on interfaces for sending 3D print jobs (or teleportation tasks) to a device. It may be too early for those standards to be defined right now, but once one platform gets them right, it may be a killer app for a loyal and deep-pocketed audience.
Obviously, I've got lots of thoughts on where 3D printing (and teleporting!) are headed, but these capture some of the ideas that have been knocking around my head the longest, and I really wanted to see what those who know more about the space think about their feasibility or correctness — I've never even owned a 3D printer! More broadly, I'm hoping those who are deep into 3D printing will see that it's still very, very early days, and there are huge improvements to be made in everything from the user experience to the business ecosystem to the marketing and explanations of these products, all of which could combine to make something truly magical.
And as just one parting example of why this stuff's exciting, I loved this video from The Verge, showing how Microsoft's hardware group (long one of the company's undersung overperformers) makes smart use of 3D printing in their everyday work: