Peter Troxler

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Personal 3D Printing

Today’s issue of ‘The Next Wave of Manufacturing’ is all about how hobbyist 3D printers are not living up to their promise … or is it?

My 3D Printed Yoda Bust
Kiet Callies / Foter / CC BY-NC

It is not a surprise that currently available hobby 3D-printers are a bit ‘finicky’, as Jessica Leber describes the printing process. I could not agree more, having seen people finicking around with 3D printers — a lot. But then, let’s be honest: extrusion technology has been around for twenty years (the initial Fused Deposit Modelling patent is from 1992). DIY 3D printers became available only in 2007 … and five years on they are sometimes ‘acting finicky’, but there are over 15 different models available (Make magazine reviews only 15).

I don’t follow Jessica Leber’s assertion that the objects a (hobby) 3D printer can produce are ‘fairly crude but quite small’ — 50 microns resolution is not crude, and 9 by 9 by 9 inch (22 by 22 by 22 cm) is not exactly small.

Jessica is right in pointing out that the materials still are a serious problem (not only in the hobbyist world). This is a general issue, not only a problem with thermoplastics, by the way.

The conclusion that ‘[t]he constraints of the at-home technology explain why the latest shift in consumer 3-D printing is toward centralized facilities not unlike photocopy shops’ is wrong in two ways. First, 3D printing shops like Shapeways, iMaterialize and local round-the-corner facilities (from 3D model in Zurich to Deezmaker in Pasadena, from 3D-U in Madrid to the figurine shop ‘omote 3D’ in Japan) have been around for as long as hobby 3D printers (Shapeways was founded in 2007—note the coïncidence to the first RepRap). Second, it is not exactly a surprise that new digital production technologies are popularized via ‘for rent’ or service facilities: copy shops, for rent digital audio studios and video cutting suites were the predecessors of home colour printers, Garageband, iMovie and the likes.

The big surprise in the article—or the big disappointment—is that Jessica Leber in no way questions where the digital models for printing would be coming from. THey are downloaded from the Internet, apparently. The article portrays home 3D printing as a consumption activity. I doubt it is. If Jessica Leber would have looked at Thingiverse (the one platform really devoted to a 3D printing community, not like Instructables that recently has been bought by a Autodesk, a (3D) modeling application developer) she would have noticed: 2112 things in household, 1616 things in art, 1476 things in hobby, 1097 things in toys, 644 things in fashion, 349 things in learning, …

I also would have expected that an article from MIT Technology Review would at least raise if not address the question how hobby 3D printing relates to ‘professional’ 3D printing—at least as a reference to what they published a few days ago (The Difference Between Makers and Manufacturers). Also that article only asked ‘can the maker movement really produce more than iPhone covers and jewelry’ and never asked ‘what can the real manufacturers learn from the makers’ or even ‘where could manufacturing go if it embraced making’ and ‘where could making go if it embraced manufacturing’.

Those are the relevant questions that lead to the future—not an MIT-instigated artificial war on the old-fashioned amateur vs. professional fronts. You’d better listen to Charles Leadebeater…

Peter Troxler • January 7, 2013

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