Remember home 3D printing? Neither do I
MakerBot, one of the most important manufacturers of of 3D printers you can use at home, is giving up on the home market. Alex Cranz explains in Gizmodo:
CEO Jonathan Jaglom called MakerBot’s event an “an overall repositioning” for the brand. That’s a market savvy way of saying MakerBot is abandoning the home and hobbyist and embracing offices and schools. Later, when I asked about MakerBot’s former dream of getting 3D printers into people’s homes Jaglom’s answer seemed to come easily, the consumer market’s “just not there yet.”
A decade ago I was so excited about the possibilities of what we called "downloadable design". This was before affordable 3D printers were even on the market, but about the ability to make what you want where you want when you want it, taking the choice from the retailer and giving it to the consumer.
It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary. In a world where we watch our carbon as closely as our waistline we don't want to be driving to the big box stores; in a world where almost everything can be digitized, why move material when we are interested in ideas, creativity and talent?
When 3D printers came along I was really excited, but others thought it was hype; Christopher Mims, now with the Wall Street Journal, (and from whom I stole the title of this post) wrote then in MIT Technology Review:
The desire for 3-D printing to take over from traditional manufacturing needs to be recognized for what it is: an ideology. Getting all of our goods from a box in the corner of our home has attractive implications, from mass customization to "the end of consumerism." With stakes like those, who wouldn't want to be a true believer.
He also made a point that as a TreeHugger, I certainly should have recognized as significant:
Advocates of 3-D printing also neglect entirely the fact that so much of what we use continues to be made out of natural substances, and for good reason. By any number of measures, wood is pound-for-pound stronger than steel, and the move toward natural products for packaging suggests that the strength and affordability of paper, bamboo and even mushrooms mean that in the future there will be more and not less of all of these.
Formlabs Stereolithographic 3D printer/Promo image
I was convinced that it was just too soon in the development of the 3D printers, reminding readers of what we went through with 2D printers, where we all had go through the low res dot matrix phase, and that it took almost 30 years to get to where everyone can own a laser printer. That fancier stereolithographic home printers like the FormLabs machine would give us all the resolution and quality we were looking for. Not.
As Cranz in Gizmodo notes, "the 3D home printer market has quietly crashed in the intervening years—brought down by extremely low-quality print materials, a painfully long and difficult print process, and worst of all, a complete lack of interest from the general public."
I have noted before that using a 3D printer is not for everyone, that CAD is genuinely difficult to learn, as is industrial design. But I was convinced that there was a role for it:
I learned CAD programs for architecture and then Rhino for product development, spent years at University getting the skills I needed to be an architect; it's tough. But just like having a plotter doesn't make you an architect, or having a laser printer doesn't make you an author, having a 3D printer doesn't make you an industrial designer. It is exactly that, a printer. At some point soon there will be a critical mass of designs available to be printed and quality high enough to make it worthwhile having.
Clearly, I was wrong about that, and the stuff that one can get is not exactly making the heart pump with desire. Of course, 3D printers and other tools for doing digital fabrication are being used in industry and by hobbyists all over the world and even in space; they just haven't found their place in the home. And remember what Mims titled his post: Why 3-D Printing Will Go the Way of Virtual Reality. VR seems to be getting pretty big right now. Perhaps it is all still just too soon to tell.