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The 3D printing debate: for all, or not?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st April 2009


Will 3D printers be as ubiquitous in home and offices as inkjet printers? And what about other forms of rapid manufacturing? Will people want CNC machines and laser cutters? And at the root of this is the question, will ‘creating’ become more mainstream? I doubt there are any designers that would turn down any affordable manufacturing machine. But to what extent will the general public want to be the designers?

There has been a debate going on, in distributed manufacturing circles, on whether the 3D Printing model can be extended to general usage.

The Replicator blog gave five reasons why it won’t go mainstream, and they have been countered here.

My own view is that while I don’t see individual usage, envisaging a network of small shops at neighborhood level seems a realistic expectation.

I asked our Dutch friend and RepRap enthusiast Erik DeBruijn for his comments, here they are:

Erik DeBruijn:

“I must say up front that I’m biassed because I’m totally fascinated by the RepRap project. Seeing the development and simplification of the design gives me the impression that anyone could build a RepRap soon. Of course I’m prone to make a misjudgement on this, because you tend to expect you and your peers are a representative fraction of society. Of course as (almost) graduate student, I’m not average. Still, there are enough people like me, with an inclination towards technology and DIY, that ARE, like me, interested by the idea of having a machine that can make almost anything.

Right now, you need a more or less technical interest or even a background to build a RepRap. As the device becomes more mature, it is like a writers pen and paper, like a painters brushes and canvas. 3D design will be a way of expressing yourself. And the things you make can be shared. Others who are not as creative could have a paint-by-number type of interface to make objects with limited design freedoms. The design process wil be adjusted to the level of a designer.

The developments:

* Simplification of the design, it becomes easier to build, less maintenance-intensive
* Quality of the products that come out of it is better
* Reduced dependence on specialist materials and/or tools
* Diffusion of the product causes faster diffusion (positive feedback loop, a.k.a. network effects or Metcalfe’s law)
* Better software, more easy to use software
* More suppliers for kits and even ready made sub-assemblies (you can now order a RepRap that you can build in little over 24 hours (a friend of mine did it) and requires no soldering or electronics experience).
* More (free) designs online. Thingiverse.com currently has 300+ digital designs of products that you can make with digital fabrication tools. Of which, currently, 42 (!) are 3D printable items.

Currently, people who can design in 3D, but who don’t have a RepRap, get to see pictures of the prints (from someone who does). This alone could be a motivation for making 3D designs. Perhaps he could even receive a copy from a nearby RepRapper. Even without a 3D printer, people are encouraged to 3D print.

Even if the RepRap isn’t succesful, it might be because a derivative is even more succesful. Eventually, when a certain installed base (critical mass) has been reached, it might become popular again. A 3D printer that can be 3D printed AND upgraded is probably more interesting considering the speed at which they will be improving when they have reached a moderate degree of diffusion.”

More Information:

* Four ways of 3D Printing ; 3D Printing Step by Step

* Cathy Lewis: what needs to be done to bring 3D Printing to the masses?

* I have found this to be particularly impressive: 3D Printing for architectural modelling, print your own lifesized house

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4 Responses to “The 3D printing debate: for all, or not?”

  1. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Smári McCarthy:

    RepRaps are awesome. Until you try to get the parts to build one. At
    that point you’ll notice two things:

    – parts are incredibly hard to source despite the best efforts of the
    RepRap team

    – kits containing all the parts are alarmingly expensive

    That said, I still really like RepRaps and look forward to
    improvements in sourcing. :)

    I saw a sneak preview of RepRap v3.0 the other day over
    videoconference… it’s bigger and substantially cooler.

  2. Edward Says:

    I am trying to obtain the parts right now, and I entirely agree that it is a pain to obtain them all. Buying an entire kit is easier, but way more expensive. MakerBot claims it will be selling kits on April 15th for 750 dollars, which is much cheaper than Bits from Bytes… which is 750 euros. Yet, that is still quite expensive. The cheapest way is to buy all the parts yourself and have a friend print out the plastic parts.

  3. General Fabb Says:

    We also posted a rebuttal of the “five reasons” post here: www.fabbaloo.com/2009/03/five-reasons-why.html.

  4. Martin Stevens Says:

    Derived from the RepRap, the RapMan has just been launched. The RepRap is great for developers and individuals with the skills to keep it working. The RapMan tries to take some of the issues out of the RepRap whilst retained all of its innovation. It has been strengthened and the extruder head made more reliable. It comes complete with its own electronics and once built is ready to run.

    Launched as an education product,at GB£750 it seems to fit the bill for schools and colleges. Interestingly, there has been equal excitement from industry. I guess it is no surprise that a cost-effective product, far cheaper than some of the competition, will generate interest.

    More information can be found on www.rap-man.com.

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