Desktop Innovation – Part 3

Reality check

Okay – let’s cut through all my hype and hyperbole of parts 1 and 2, and talk about reality.

It’s nice and all to be dreaming of a (near) future where everyone can be designing and 3D printing “things” that change the world, not just 3D printing other people’s “things”. That’s not what the future is, I know that. It doesn’t happen in other areas, why would it happen here?

I figure that there are probably only a small percentage of people who will get 3D printers and actually innovate with them from the first print on. The rest will proceed as normal and as happens with every other tool out there — use other people’s plans, emulate other people’s designs, make Darth Vader heads and gears. Despite any appearance of snarkiness, I don’t have a problem with this at all. I don’t think folks who do this are wrong, or are not creative. There are plenty of examples of people creating cool derivatives of other people’s works all the time.

These folks are both customers of “desktop innovation” and the pool from which new innovators will come. The exciting possibility is that simply emulating won’t be enough for some; they will want to explore their own ideas, come up with their own products, share them with the world.

It’s all about me

This path of imitation is exactly how I started in music. My first band was what would be considered a “punk” band — but we covered everything from Iggy and the Stooges, to DI, to Bauhaus, to INXS. It was a great way to learn our instruments and how songs were crafted, and experience the thrill of performing in front of people and having fans. But that wasn’t enough for us, we wanted to do our own thing, speak our own words, have groupies that were groupies of our music. We wrote our own songs and had a small bit of success and that left a mark on me. With the confidence and understanding that process brought, I never wanted to do anything but my own music.

This is the type of learning and growth I see happening in the 3D printing community. There are a lot of folks making copies of existing products, some with slight modifications to add a new logo, some just flat out knock-offs of commercial products (a potentially dangerous area we’ll discuss at a later time). But there are also a growing number of creators of new objects that people are really starting to treat as “rock stars”. Their objects are 3D printed, copied, augmented, and blogged about. This sort of fandom is exactly what will fuel others to start to express their own voice with this medium, creating better designs, better “things”.

Of course, there is another venue (no pun intended) for creating desktop innovators — schools. Unfortunately, more and more funds in more and more places are being cut for old-school “shop” classes and art classes; it seems a hard-sell to get 3D printers in front of children. On the bright side, there are discussions taking place to bring maker and 3D printing workshops to libraries — spaces that are looking for new ways to get funding, and provide information to more than just a small group of the public. Surprisingly, it’s sometimes easier for those of us who want to get this technology — and other maker technology — in front of the masses by working with public spaces like libraries than with schools that often have restrictions and requirements about who and what can be taught. That’s not saying there isn’t solid educational material to present, but rather the lack of these requirements allows for greater agility of what is being shown;  teachers can adapt to a local environment without need to worry about state or federal educational requirements (I worked in the eLearning industry for seven years and know the difficulties of meeting all requirements everywhere all at once).

Cost and Reliability: The TL;DR part

So while this is all positive and a happy vision of what could fuel this concept, and where all of this could lead, there are some realities that will keep this from happening as soon as one may like. Despite the incredibly rapid progress of quality in and affordability of at-home 3D printers, the current crop of printers is still too expensive and too unreliable, keeping it just out of reach of many.

The expensive nature of the current crop of products is par for the course with new technology. I certainly recall the original prices of laser printers in the late 80′s — several thousands of dollars. Now you can get one for less than $100. The same downward shift in prices of 3D printers is happening, I think, at a faster rate than printers. Just last month I was discussing whether or not we’d see a fully assembled, plug-and-play 3D printer for under $1000 in less than a year, and just three days later one was announced for $700.

Even with the rapid decrease of prices, one of the most important things for creating a new breed of innovator is reliability. Purchasing a plug-and-play device — as I did — has it’s pros and cons. On the good side, I know that the machine was assembled by someone who knows the process intimately, has done it before, and knows every tip and trick to get a good build. On the down side, when something goes wrong I don’t know anything about my device’s internals and am left to trying to find answers online in wikis and forums. Because these are kit-based products, knowing the internals is crucial for really feeling “in control” of these devices, being able to know that what I’m designing and printing is going to come out as I expect.

There is a little bit of what I’m going to call the “Linux syndrome” happening here. Linux is a really capable desktop operating system that I’ve used as my sole machine on several projects. However, where Linux falls down is when something bad or unexpected happens — the user is pretty much forced to dig through forum after forum trying to determine the correct, what may appear to be cryptic, command-line string to type to edit a configuration file to fix their issue.

There are folks who don’t mind this way of working, in fact I know several who enjoy working with Linux because of this. I understand that. I also understand the folks who want to build their own machine, and tinker with it, and know about each and every potentiometer tweak they need to make to get their stepper motors to perform in a certain way.

But — again I’m going out on a limb here, making broad statements — the masses want to just plug something in and have it work.

The current state of 3D printers is an interesting hybrid. The plug-and-play models are expensive and print as good as they can because they were built with experience and know-how. But when they break, you’re on your own. Even when laser printers cost $10,000, there was support behind them because there wasn’t anything you could touch inside (I remember in some cases a person would come to your office to fix your laser printer, if you lived in the right area). Since the majority of current 3D printers are out there in the open — open source software, open hardware — it’s a little bit of a free-for-all. Even those selling new pre-assembled devices based on open source kits will rely upon the community for help in fixing problems.

Software is the second part of reliability that I’ll briefly hit on. The current software toolchain is again in this hybrid world; nice easy-to-use GUIs with a chaotic, command-line backend that users may have to touch from time to time. The nature of these command-line tools, and their text-based configuration files, opens the door for a user to completely shut down their device because they’ve typed something in wrong, or put too many spaces between parameters, or used TAB instead of SPACE. This isn’t so much “reliability” as the appearance of reliability. Users have grown to expect simple sliders, checkboxes, and buttons to enter their data, and when this isn’t the case, it is easier to claim that “the software is buggy” instead of “I did something wrong”. It is an easy step from there to “the machine is broken and unreliable”.

Of course, all of these issues can lead to an secondary industry — 3D printer support. Due to the open source nature of the current crop of devices, learning the internals and software requirements of one or two models can make fixing any other model easier, and then you can offer that a service. I can’t wait to call the 3D printer repairman; “well there’s your problem, you’ve got some carbonized ABS in your extruder nozzle”.

The shortcomings are already being worked on, and it won’t be long before they aren’t an issue. I just don’t see mass adoption, and mass paradigm shifts, until the kinks are worked out.

I’m personally happy to be an early adopter, but I also know that people aren’t like me. Users these days are increasingly impatient with technology; they expect things to work from day one and live up to the perceived hype. Anything that doesn’t match the buzz is quickly brushed aside. I’m afraid that people will overlook the impact these devices will have on society and their own lives simply because they can’t get past the DIY-ish packaging, devices, software, et al. Again, the “Linux syndrome”.

This could set a stage for current big-name 3D printer companies to waltz in, riding the wave of hype, and offer turn-key devices that meet the commercial expectations. I’m thinking specifically of HP as their 3D printers work most like the RepRap/MakerBot style of 3D printer (unlike ZCorp and Objet). HP has the devices, the filament cartridge systems, the user-experience background, the reliability, and the brand recognition to be able to put their machines in every Office Depot (or should that be Home Depot?). They could sell filament with the same model as they sell inkjet printer ink, keeping the prices of the machines low but the plastic higher than third-party outlets. Will they? My guess is that they eventually will (perhaps even buying out a smaller manufacturer). They can’t overlook this opportunity to do what they do best — make money. Their current line of 3D printers is being looked at like those early laser printers: proprietary, slow, and really expensive. The sooner they jump on board, the better off they will be, because otherwise someone else is going to do what they could do better, faster, and for a lot less money.

“Earl Grey, hot”

This is where some people say the “democratization” of desktop fabrication is at play; everyday people making devices at a price that everyone can have one. (Adhocracy?) From a product perspective I think that’s true. From a knowledge perspective, I don’t think that is quite accurate.

These machines, unlike other desktop innovations (see: printers and “desktop publishing”), require a skill level and learning curve that is higher than some people are willing to invest in. Even the best free 3D modeling software right now requires some significant learning to make everything one can envision. Then, learning how to get those files to the printer, fixing a whole new world of problems along the way (“what do you mean my object isn’t ‘manifold’?!”), then learning about the strength or flimsiness of their object, how the plastic responds to stress, how just orientation of the object as it’s being printed affects performance of both the 3D printer and the resulting object. This world isn’t like the replicators that people see in science fiction. This takes effort and time.

At the same time, you have people on the other side of the fence — those with existing industrial design backgrounds, knowledge of material properties, designing within specific tolerences, etc. Some of these folks will have issues with this new world, a world in which people will just start printing things without concern or respect for the knowledge these “experts” have accumulated over the years. I’ve witnessed this same thing when desktop publishing first came to the masses. All of the graphic designers and layout folks I knew were threatened by the computer and those that could work with it, and tried to marginalize it’s usefullness rather than embrace it. I admit I felt the same about the increase in software that lets anyone make really good-sounding music on their computers (and now their phones).

But what I realize is that this is an oppotunity for folks with knowledge in these areas to step up and use what they know in a different way. As people grow with their 3D printers, having a resource to teach them how to make their things better is going to be huge.

I’m at that point with my shelf-pin cable holder. I can tell, just by playing with it, that four of these things wouldn’t hold a shelf full of heavy books. The pin isn’t strong enough, the connection to the loop part too weak. I’m also fortunate enough to work with people who know how to deal with, and solve, these sorts of problems.

The best part, IMO, about the open-source nature of this technology right now is that as I learn about these things, I’m encouraged to share these learnings with the community. The earlier, and more often, we can pull some of the experts into the community of learners, the better for all of us.

Is it more “socialization” rather than “democratization”?

Where does that leave us?

I’ve had lots of great discussions with folks after the first two parts of my series on “Desktop Innovation”. One thing that the folks who I talk to in person understand, but that may not come across while reading, is that what I’m trying to do with this series is put all of the thoughts I’m having about 3D printing “on paper”, to spark conversation, and possibly (hopefully) inspire someone to look deeper into 3D printing from a self-empowering, creative, perspective.

No one has the definitive viewpoint on this technology, about desktop fabrication, yet. We can only form opinion from what we experience first-hand. There is no resource or guide. This is exciting. Common people rarely get to be part of such a huge shift in society this early on. If people embrace that, there will truly be some revolutionary changes.

I can’t wait.

[ UPDATE ] I’ve added the STL files to Thingiverse for folks to download and print on their own 3D printers. I’d love to see people create new pieces that fit with the base object.

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