3D Printing Is Going to Change Business, Society and the World
As Easy as 2D Early this summer, Microsoft began offering a preview version of Windows 8.1, which is the first operating system to offer native support for 3D printing. "Our core vision was that you should be able to print 3D objects the same way that you print 2D objects," Shanen Boettcher, general manger of Microsoft's Start-Up Business Group, told eWEEK. "Before 8.1, if you were to buy a 3D printer and try to hook it up, the computer wouldn't recognize it, and you'd have to find software and applications. It's a little like if a paper printer came with a word processor and that was the only word processor that you could use with it," he said. "We wanted to unlock the ecosystem and the experience for our customers."Boettcher says a trend Microsoft is seeing in the enterprise space—where very high-end 3D printing has been well-established for some time—is a "sort of consumerization," where desktop 3D printers are coming into play. Ford and JDL, he says, are putting a 3D printer on the desks of each engineer, so they can design, print, discuss, iterate and keep the creative process going—instead of waiting for a turn on their companies' million-dollar machines. "I think the greatest benefit we see is reducing latency. ... You reduce the time it takes to see in physical 3D what you've been designing. It's the same for artists in the creative space. That's really where the huge benefit is," said Boettcher. Making 3D printers easier to use is also a focus of Wisconsin-based Radiant Fabrication, a young company that on Sept. 3 introduced the Lionhead 3D Printer and Scanner. Radiant calls the Lionhead the first consumer-level 3D printer to include a 3D scanner and "powerful 3D modeling software," which it calls Li (pronounced LEE). It plans to start shipping the Lionhead Bunny (beta) system in October. (It currently has a Kickstarter campaign in the works, to help attract small-business owners.) At $1,649, the Lionhead is also easy on the wallet. (The MakerBot Replicator 2 is $2,199, and the Digitizer scanner is $1,400.) "We really designed our hardware and software to address the main problems people experience with 3D printing—speed, reliability and the accessibility of these projects," Nathan Patterson, co-founder and president of Radiant, told eWEEK. "The trend is to say that these things are easy to use, but really they're only easy to use for people who have experience making models and who have 3D-printed before. We tried to make a solution that genuinely makes it simple to go from having an idea to printing it out." A key way that Radiant sought to make the Radiant Li editor simple and intuitive to users was to give it controls similar to those of popular video games, like Minecraft. To test whether the software was so simple that a kid could use it, Patterson and his team brought them to an "after-school enrichment" program near its headquarters outside Madison. While some kids had played Minecraft, others had only used touch-screen devices. "For most of these kids, it takes them less than five minutes to figure out how to move around the space and start building things," said Patterson. When asked where he sees the industry going, Patterson says he expects the "next big leap" to happen once the printers become much more reliable and usable. While the tinkerers of the world may not mind fussing with stopped-up printer heads and losing themselves in a software program, in order to master it, those aren't the users who are going to take 3D printing mainstream. "There's a big difference between printing a fancy paperweight and printing a laptop," said Patterson. "What's going to make it ubiquitous is when people can easily make 3D models and print everyday items that they can use." An increase in the number of colors, as well as materials—magnetic materials, flexible materials—that can be used will also help, said Patterson, so "users don't feel they're being held back in any way."
Microsoft works with a number of desktop 3D printing partners, including Formlabs, Cubify 3D Systems, which makes the Cube 3D printer, now sold at Office Depot and Staples stores, and MakerBot. This summer it began selling the Replicator 2 in Microsoft retail stores.