3D Printing isn’t for everyone… yet.

 

So, i’ve been a 3D printing addict for the last six years. It all started out during my bachelor’s degree, where a friend and me decided to try something new and build a 3D printer from scratch. And at that time, it was a choice between the overly simplified Prusa Mendel or the original Sells mendel, obviously, we went down the harder route and built this. So this was my first 3D printer, and things were a bit different back then, you couldn’t just buy the parts and expect everything to work, you actually had to figure out every little detail and make it work. And i still fondly remember that smell of burnt mosfet and wood as we tried to add a heated bed to it. So with that background of approaching 3D printing from both an angle of using it as a tool to make things but also as a project to learn from, and, you know, just being fascinated by the technology, i want to talk about why i think 3D printing in a Consumer application still has ways to go and in my opinion, just isn’t a valid concept in its current form.

So you can basically squeeze 3D printers into three categories, the Professional machines, with prices ranging anywhere from 50k to 500k and beyond, and those machines are in a great spot. You’ve got applications in prototyping, in micro-batch production and increasingly, even 3D-printer-specific uses like customizing goods or producing structures that aren’t feasible with traditional means of fabrication. Then there are the “Maker” or “Enthusiast” grade machines, I’d actually consider both $3000 premium machines and $200 far-east kits to fall into this more category of more involved users. This bracket also has its specific set of applications, and that’s everywhere someone wants produce things with the machines that he or she wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy at the price or not even be able to buy at all because they are fully custom parts for a project or just one-off things you need, so they design and print them.

Now, 3D printers aimed at consumers, as in the everyday person, are in a bit of a weird position there. Imagine your typical consumer, someone who goes to an electronics store and buys a 50€ 2D printer and supposedly goes, hey, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to print in 3D, too? Now think about how much they know about the technology behind 3D printing and how much they know about 3D design and customizing things. If you thought, “well, they don’t know about any of that”, then you’re on the right track. Because they don’t. Many “consumers” don’t even know enough about their 2D printers to use them properly. So to stick with that 2D printer analogy, the core reasons i see why everyone now has one of them is because they are comparatively easy to use, they are reliable, though some people might disagree here, and most of all, they allow you to do things that aren’t easily possible any other way, specifically, creating and printing your own documents, photos, cards, whatever you want. That’s really the kicker for them, if all you were able to print was pre-made graphics and forms, then what would be the point of owning a 2D printer when everything it is able to make is also available in a store, ready-made, cheaper, and in better quality?

So, on the same terms, why would anyone want to buy a 3D printer without having the same level of ease of use and usefulness as a 2D printer? Well, they wouldn’t if they were in their right minds. What’s still pushing consumers towards owning a 3D printer is plainly marketing, good or bad. When every single Kickstarter printer claims to be the new best machine that now finally allows you to print everything you could ever imagine and even established 3D printer manufacturers start doing the same, then the consumer is just going to give in eventually and just buy one of those damn things if they really are so great. But then what? Sure, they are going to print the first sample files and vases and trinkets from one of the 3D file sharing platform, but what do they do once they run into the first issue – and trust me, they will. What do they do when a print doesn’t stick to the bed or just doesn’t come out with the level of quality they were hoping for? Or even worse, what happens once the euphoria wears off and they run out of things to print. Because that’s going to be that moment of enlightenment – and disappointment – when they start asking themselves “what did i even buy this thing for?”

So really, what makes 3D printers great is that you can produce original things that you come up with, and not just reproduce desings someone else uploaded. So that should really be the first thing we, as a community and as an industry need to start focusing on, allowing people to more easily create things that truly are their own. And that doesn’t even have to be full-blown CAD knowledge for everyone, even simple things like Makerbot’s Thingiverse customizer are a great start there, since they allow you to change the dimensions, features, lettering of the part you’re going to print. Because that’s what 3D printing is awesome at, producing things that you can’t go out for and buy at the store, like you would when printing exact replicas of ready-made models.

It’s a start, but creating your designs that are completely your own is an even better use for the technology, so somehow, we need to work out a way for, no offense, normal people to use some sort of CAD tool. Now, the thing about CAD and designing 3D parts, is, in my experience, that the actual program you use isn’t the biggest challenge, because frankly, 3D CAD programs have become insanely good and accessible in the recent years, so the tools are there. What’s the bigger challenge, unless you’re regularly creating physical things, like building and making structures, is that it’s incredibly hard for people to imagine in detail what their design should end up looking like, because that’s simply not a region of our brains we’re regularly using and training. And i realize that is pretty much the definition of a “consumer”, as opposed to a “creator”. You’re often going to see people have an initial idea, but no concept of what it should look like in the physical world. And even worse, the process of then reproducing the design they thought of into a 3D model, that process then doesn’t use tools and methods that people are familiar with or even have a direct, physical, real-world equivalent to. Sure, clay-like sculpting modelling is very much based on a physical process, but it is a very limited approach that is only really useful for one specific type of 3D model.

So the one company that stands out here is Autodesk, and they’re placing themselves in that exact void that will need to be filled if more accessible 3D printing is really meant to become a thing. Tools like Tinkercad that are simply based on combining existing shapes to make new ones are a great place to start; they’re “Enabler” technologies that give even the uninitiated a chance of using 3D printing in a meaningful way. Sure, the tools aren’t perfect and could definitely use a bit more “intelligence” that tells you how to best 3D print a model and how you could refine it to make it more suitable for the technology, for example how you could avoid overhangs or orient your part optimally, but still, it’s amazing to see what even third-graders can achieve with these simple tools. Because they are tools that are very accessible, but still powerful enough. So what I think would really give this area a boost would be 3D printer manufacturers not just selling their hardware, but also going, hey, these are the software tools you can use to make your own awesome stuff with our machines, and this is how you can use them.

Now, the 3D printers themselves could use some extra intelligence, too. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see how far the hardware has come and how sophisticated many of the low-end 3D printers already are, but these machines are still way too complex and way too dumb to be properly used by non-tech-heads. Like I mentioned earlier, what do you do when a print doesn’t stick to the bed, what if the extruder grinds through the filament, what if a stepper motor keeps skipping on the exact same part of a print every single time? Those are issues even somewhat experienced users might not be able to immediately solve, and frankly, these problems shouldn’t even exist in the first place for a user-friendly machine. If you look at 99% of the 3D printers out there, they’ve all got mostly the same hardware and the same lack of feedback about what they’re doing. So to paraphrase it, most filament-based 3D printers work like they were doing open-heart surgery with their eyes closed, no sense of smell and touch and someone who also doesn’t know how things are looking, whispering into their ears, a bit left, now forward, now plunge down, yeah, you can do it, you can do it.

So what i’m trying to say is, there is so little self-awareness in these machines, that some of them could literally set themselves on fire, melt down an entire axis and not even realize that anything has gone wrong. They’d just keep following their routine and hope for the best. And this requires a bit of a change in mentality by the manufacturers, a 3D printer that’s usable by everyone shouldn’t just have the bare minimum of components that make it function, it should have the bare minimum of features that make it foolproof and reliable, even when not used by a specialist. And many of these features wouldn’t even add that much to the raw component cost of the machine, the biggest part would be a one-time development project for the hardware and the software. And that would include things like sensors for the filament path – so monitoring things like: is the filament loaded properly, is it being transported properly, is it running out in the middle of a print, maybe even a diameter sensor that can have the machine compensate for filament irregularities. And by the way, these are not things that are completely science-fiction, these are all things that are known to work and are basically just waiting for a broader implementation. Then things like ambient temperature sensors which can either automatically adjust printing temperatures and cooling fan settings or even suggest to the user that they might want to think about moving the 3D printer to a warmer room. And if a manufacturer really has too much cash to blow, they could even consider adding current and voltage monitoring for each stepper driver to predict when an axis is about to lose its positioning. Editor’s note (which is also me): We now actually have this functionality, the Trinamic TMC2130 can report when it thinks a stepper motor might have skipped step. We’re getting there.

Still, There are so many options out there that just need to be implemented, but would each make these machines so much more reliable. Maybe that up front research and development investment would have to be something done by the community, but because “the community” now is such a fragmented mess, I think there needs to be at least one bigger manufacturer involved to set a pace and drive the project forward. I’m not really sure who would be suitable for that, though, most manufacturers just seem to be interested in producing closed-source machines that are more of the same for maximum profit these days.

But it doesn’t even need to be entirely new concepts, even already functioning and commonly used ideas like sensor-based bed adjustment should just already be implemented in every single printer. Not just the in consumer types, because there’s just almost no drawback to it even for the more involved machines. Sure, you can get exactly the same results with three-point adjustment and a piece of paper, again, in that case the machine itself has no clue about how well it is adjusted or whether it’s even adjusted at all.

And it’s not just about adding “more” to the machines to make them easier to use, it’s also about making them better. Most of the time, it’s not about feature count or sheer size, it’s about how well everything works as a unit. I mean, most enthusiasts can work even with a barely functioning product and make them produce great results – whether that’s 3D printer geeks or Linux users, it’s the same principle. But most users will prefer something that just works, even if it means they’re getting less for their money, at least when it comes to marketable number games, which is why Apple products sell so incredibly well in the IT space.

For a 3D printer, that’s mostly no-brainers. Use decent components instead of more of the cheap ones and you’ll be preventing user headache in the first place.

So in the end, even though they look like the same type of machines on the surface, Consumer and Enthusiast type 3D printers really require a different mindset in their design language. The more involved 3D printers are doing great, by the way, and they are very much on the right track when it comes to their feature set, but they are also used for entirely different things than what you’re looking at with a true consumer-grade product. For the Maker-grade machines, whether it’s individual projects or a part of a larger collective like the e-nable project that designs and 3D prints prosthetic limbs, there’s always a straightforward reason for them to use 3D printing, and the machines and software are already good enough to be used productively by these more involved users. But to really reach, dare i say, the masses, to make 3D printing more than just a fad, and actually an appealing concept for everyone, there needs to be a change in pace from just making more of the same machines to actually creating approachable workflows and bullet proof machines.

I know this isn’t going to be an instant event where all manufacturers just suddenly flip a switch, there’s a bit too much fragmentation going on in the market right now, but maybe we can start that slow process of convincing manufacturers that 3D printers need to start moving forward instead of just sideways.

 

At last year’s FabCon and Rapidtech show I gave a talk titled “The end of consumer 3D printing” [questionmark]. In it, I try to outline why I think that 3D printers aren’t quite ready for the common consumer, the mass market yet. With this year’s FabCon coming up soon, I think it would be the perfect time to check out that talk again. I’ve rewritten a few bit, but everything’s still just as relevant. Let’s check it out!

So that was the talk from FabCon, if any 3D printer manufacturers are listening, I’d love to see what your plans look like when it comes to making your machines not not cheaper, but better, or if you even have plans for that. And if any of you are going to FabCon, I’ll also be there, so… see you there?

Anyways, thanks a lot for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.