At the MakerBot headquarters, a 21st-floor Brooklyn, N.Y., office space with a bird’s-eye view of lower Manhattan, journalists were assembled Sept. 20 for a look at the company’s newest device, the MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner.
The scanner eliminates the need for a user to laboriously create a digital model with which to duplicate something. Taking up roughly the counter space of a toaster, the Digitizer uses two lasers to scan an object and create a watertight digital model in less than 12 minutes. From there, a user can hit “print” or use the model as a starting point.
Bre Pettis, MakerBot’s exuberant and camera-friendly CEO, likes to say that the Digitizer “jump-starts the creative process.” Soon enough, he expects people—toy designers, hobbyists, architects, jet-engine builders—to begin measuring the time saved between idea and finished product.
Four years ago, Pettis helped launch Thingiverse, a site where MakerBot users can share inventions and download digital models. (“There were sites for downloading books and music and videos, but what about things?” said Pettis.) Since then, he’s created about 100 models. Over the last two weeks, however, with a Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner on his desk, he’d already created more than 50.
“This is going to change the pace of innovation, because people can iterate faster, they can make mistakes faster, they can throw a version in the trash and move on to the next one,” said Pettis. “It really speeds up the process of getting something going.”
As Pettis spoke, a MakerBot Replicator 2 was busy in the background, printing a replica of the plastic red garden gnome standing on the Digitizer’s “turntable.”
The turntable has an 8-inch diameter—basically, because if an object can fit on the turntable, it’s small enough to be made in a Replicator.
Pettis, added that MakerBot’s goal for the Digitizer was that when someone put something on its turntable, scanning it would be “as easy as playing a record.”
The gnome—like the event party favor of a replica of the scanner scanning the gnome, all of it small enough to fit inside a plastic gumball—is the epitome of the kind of kitsch and plastic junk some people dread will result from giving consumers the power to manufacture objects, ad nauseam.
(Likewise, the fast-growing list of materials that 3D printers can now work with means that scientists are experimenting with printed transplantable kidneys, but silly conceits like printing a dinner party, from the entree to the napkin rings, now also make headlines.)
Still, MakerBot, which this summer was acquired by industrial 3D-printer maker Stratysys, is well aware of the serious, business-changing benefits its products can offer to a number of vertical markets.
NASA, GE and Lockheed Martin are all clients. And in addition to helping build aircrafts and space telescopes, MakerBot’s work was strutted down a runway in early September as part of New York’s Fashion Week.
3D Printing Is Going to Change Business, Society and the World
Designer Francis Bitonti, as part of a workshop he teaches at the Pratt Institute, worked with his class to create the “Verlan Dress.” It was made from MakerBot Flexible Filament, a new nontoxic, biodegradable and flexible material, and inspired by the lines of human musculature.
Bitonti delighted in having 3D printers in the design studio, where his students had “the ability to have immediate feedback on their designs by printing them during the design process,” he said in a Sept. 6 statement.
In keeping with the new manufacturing, creative and business paradigms that 3D printing ushers in, the design—far from inaccessible couture—is now posted on Thingiverse, where anyone can download the file and instructions and print a dress of her own.
The Future of 3D Printing
Lux Research has forecast that the 3D printing market could reach $8.4 billion in sales by 2025, up from $777 million in 2012.
By 2016, research firm Gartner expects enterprise-class 3D printers will be available for less than $2,000 and other types for less than $1,000.
“Do not let the hype disguise the very real cost savings from improved designs, streamlined prototyping and short-run manufacturing,” Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere wrote in a March report. He further advised enterprises to “start experimenting with 3D printing technology to improve traditional product design and prototyping, with the potential to create new product lines and markets.”
With the opportunity to experiment, manufacturers might find “viable alternatives” to how they’re currently making products, whether by using different materials or a different method, Basiliere told eWEEK.
Aerospace companies, ship builders and other vertical markets want to bring in 3D technology for two reasons, he explained. “The first is to change the way they manufacture items.”
He gave the example of Sandia Labs, where researchers and engineers were able to advance a task more quickly by designing during the day, letting a prototype print at night, and getting right back to work in the morning, instead of sending out the prototype and letting work stall while they waited.
The other reason is to introduce engineering staff to additive manufacturing.
“Most items are made with a subtractive process. You have a piece of metal or wood, and you take from it what you need,” explained Basiliere. “3D printing is truly additive, where you’re building from the bottom up. It enables items to be built that are literally not possible with traditional manufacturing technologies.”
With desktop 3D printers to experiment with, “staff who are experienced in subtractive manufacturing can experiment with additive, and see what windows it opens up for the company,” he said.
While 3D printing is already well-established in industries, from automotive manufacturing to pharmaceuticals, opportunities still exist, Basiliere wrote in his report.
“Businesses can use 3D printing to design personalized products, components, working prototypes and architectural models to promote their brand and products in new and interactive ways,” he wrote. “Indeed, there are opportunities to create entirely new product lines in which the finished 3D-printed product is what the consumer purchases.”
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.”
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.
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.”
3D Printing Is Going to Change Business, Society and the World
Go Low End or High End?
As capabilities of 3D printers become better known, and their presence becomes more commonplace, a cultural—even intellectual—shift will inevitably take place. People are going to think differently about stuff.
They’re going to think a little more about how stuff is made and what it’s made of. They’re going to look at a thing and think, Could I do a better job? When they need something, they’re going to consider whether to buy or if, maybe, they could design a better one, or find a better digital model online. In short, whether they’re after a clever coat hook, a cute princess tiara or a stronger flush mechanism in their toilet tank, they’re going to problem-solve differently.
“I have three young boys, and I have to say, it does fundamentally change the way they think about things they want and can create,” said Microsoft’s Boettcher. “For them to think up a toy that’s half tank and half squirrel and then act on it—they say, ‘Wow, I can make something that I have in my mind’—it’s pretty inspiring.”
“Now, I literally rethink everything in my life,” Elisa Richardson, the PR and communications manager at Shapeways, told eWEEK. “I see something and think, ‘That’s really expensive. I could make it cheaper and better.'”
Shapeways is a 3D printing company in Long Island City, N.Y., with an industrial printer that it makes accessible to customers of all types. Anyone can design something, send the file to Shapeways and have it 3D-printed.
Visiting the Shapeways homepage is like visiting Etsy. Shapeways hosts “shops”—it now has more than 11,000 shop owners who show off their wares, from jewelry to robotics to furniture to drones. When someone orders something, Shapeways prints it.
“We provide shipping and production, so the shop owners have no inventory and no stock. They’re able to just focus on designing,” said Richardson.
Shapeways has printed more than 1 million objects to date and a customer base of 350,000, and its factory in Long Island City produces more than 60,000 objects per month. It ships around the world and in materials from plastic to gold-plated to premium silver and ceramics.
What will the next five years bring?
“As more people read about 3D printing and realize how non-frightening it is, we’re going to see the uptick become massive,” said Richardson.
Certainly, there’s an enterprise trend toward embracing desktop 3D printers, and some believe 3D printers will eventually become as commonplace in homes and classrooms as 2D printers are. But users still may be split between the two models.
The tinkerers and experimenters may go for the quick reward of the desktop model, while those wanting more premium products may turn to Shapeways or similar offerings. It’s easy to imagine a company like Amazon taking on the model—printing and shipping items designed by retailers as well as by small design shops or the customers themselves.
Radiant’s Patterson, when asked what he’s been printing on his Lionhead Bunny, said, “Bolts. Custom bolts. I’ve really been trying to print objects that are really usable by people. My niece, though,” he added, “always wants to make things that will ultimately wind up as paperweights.”