Microsoft is betting that its upcoming Windows 8.1 update will help unleash the inner high-end tinkerer in many of the operating system's users, or at least help the 3D printing movement become mainstream.
Among the most surprising features being baked into Windows 8.1 is a 3D printer and file format support. The company is paving the way for "a factory on every desktop" later this year, Shanen Boettcher, general manager of Microsoft's Startup Business Group, announced in a June 26 blog post.
"Making a 3D object on your PC will be as easy as writing a document in Word and sending it to print. Just as desktop publishing transformed how we write, we think desktop manufacturing will transform how we create," wrote Boettcher.
Today, Microsoft is offering a glimpse at how Windows could help spur the consumerization of 3D printing.
Given 3D printing's growing popularity and expanding ecosystem of products and technologies, Microsoft has a chance to establish itself as a major player in the space. Boettcher noted that analysts expect "that the global 3D printing market will reach $3.1 billion by 2016."
In the latest edition of the company's new online film series, "On the Whiteboard," the company explored Windows 8.1's role as a potential facilitator of desktop-scale manufacturing.
Microsoft is doing its part to move the market along. "While 3D printing isn't mainstream—yet— it's only a matter of time before it is, with the potential to crank out increasingly complex creations as easily as printing a Word document. In fact, customers can buy a 3D printer at Microsoft retail stores this fall and at Staples for $1,299," the software giant stated in a July 30 statement.
In an accompanying video, Mike Kemery, co-founder of Makerhause, a 3D fabrication facility in Seattle, Wash., said, "Enabling people to actually print through Windows software is a precursor to where 3D printing is going to go, and how it's going to grow within the home. Drawing parallels to desktop publishing's 20-year journey to mainstream appeal, Kemery added that "it's smart for Windows to be moving in that direction."
Like microwave ovens were to the average kitchen, 3D printers are "equally disruptive and interesting," argued Boettcher in the video, and added that they will emerge as "a convenience that people are really going to enjoy."
And just as microwaves were once-pricey luxuries, over the years prices tumbled well into the realm of affordability. The same is now occurring with 3D printers, which are shedding their astronomical price tags and fitting within the budgets of hobbyists and enthusiasts.
For example, MakerBot's acclaimed 2X Desktop 3D printer costs $2,799. As mentioned earlier, Staples carries the Cube 3D printer from 3D Systems for $1,299.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is giving the 3D printing hardware and software ecosystem a nudge by streamlining the process of turning pixels into physical goods. "What we've done in Windows 8.1 is we've made this pipeline that the hardware manufactures plug in their drivers and software manufactures can plug into things like the the file-print dialogs that we're all familiar with to print documents," said Boettcher.
"Our initial vision, from what we wanted to accomplish here, was to make 3D printing as easy as printing a Word doc is today," he said.