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Thoughtlet: My thoughts on 3D printing

July 16th, 2014

medium_9135194264I started writing this post a few week back and stumbled onto it today – It was off the back of me reading this article on Denzeen by Alexendria Lange. It is an individual perspective on 3D printing, it’s failings and how it could learn from the sewing revival. This article was in direct response to Seth Stephen’s article on Slate.com. Below is my rambling thoughts on their perspectives.

TLDR:

Experience limitations can and do skew perspectives, more often than not towards the negative. Look at the wider picture and see the possibility.

 

Look to the future, and like the sewing pattern sellers you will see more like Thingiverse, offering a marketplace (marketspace) for the sale of 3D patterns. The sewing revival, enabled by the internet, teaches how to make your own patterns, or download pre-created patterns for you to sew. 3D, too, offers this (Thingiverse, other?). The difference is in the maturity of the technology. Give it time.

Now for the longer version:

Whilst the parallels are useful, keep in mind that they are different technologies with different applications.

 

Article points to the fact that current home 3D printing is not at a level sufficient for mass use. I argue that, in it’s current form, it will never be. What it is today is the very beginning of what is to come. The pre-cursor to something amazing. We are already seeing what is coming (Food printing, medical printing, manufacturing). I’m sure that the early automatic sewing machines were horrible and produced sub-par results too (Just look to the shitty hand-held or initial cheap machines available; and even what is now available in discount stores). Not all things are created equal.

3D printing and modelling, like the sewing analogy, doesn’t come easily and automatically, it takes practice. Something that the article brushes over.

Depicted in the article, the parallels of sewing and 3D printing stop at the creativity level. Whilst both are manufacturing related both address different needs. Given recent crossovers like Dita Von Teese’s 3D printed dress, I can understand why the comparison is appealing. Both would have started out as manual activities (hand threading two pieces of skin together vs. carving a shape out of or into wood) and have evolved along the path of industrialisation to where they are today. Whilst the Denzeen article approaches sewing from the purely industrialised point of view it approaches 3D printing from the home-machine and hobbyist view. Not altogether helpful, and more than a little neglectful. Sewing machines for the hobbyist, like 3D printers today, have undergone the consumer co-development model (and still do), whilst 3D printing is still emerging.

 

The article identifies how sewing allows you to create or re-purpose a dress, but I know, through watching my wife and previously my mother, it is also a way to quickly mock up something to check for fit and shape prior to burning money on the final product. Whilst the Denzeen article sees 3D printing today as pure novelty it also has other immediate values such as prototyping at the small scale, allowing the very quick checking of real-world functionality of a product before moving to large scale production.

 

Product lifecycle – Innovators and early adopters – are the ones using personal 3D printing today. These are still very early stages, what it does show is that this groups pushes the boundaries of the technology and in turn the technology itself improves. This is why it looks like the 3D printers of today become obsolete so quickly, it is because they are. What both the Denzeen and Slate writers miss out understanding is that 3D printing as a whole is HUGE and the potential is almost limitless. By offering to a wider consumer (innovator) market, 3D printing is able to rapidly adapt to consumer needs and at the same time use enthusiast (or consumer) units as a way of prototyping features and capabilities, likewise the technologies in the higher end printers will eventually filter down to the entry level models.

 

  • The consumer and industrial technology have driven some amazing advancements in medical application (Printed human skull parts, external casts to speed healing, etc?).
  • Hacker community creation of new and exciting changes to plastic extrusion, creating food printers, and other spin-offs.
  • Education – Teaching engineering principals – Aside from pro-typing the other main use at the moment is education.

 

Arguing that you need yet another device to re-melt manufactured products so you can re-use is not a valid argument. One can argue that the imprecise cut or cloth or the poor stitch that needs to be removed are also waste, waste that CANNOT be recycled. In the sewing world you have the choice of other machines to make the job easier for you, an overlocker so you don’t have to french all you seams (or perform multiple stitch runs) or trim the excess fabric. We’re seeing the emergence of the need to supply recycling capabilities  and I think that this will change the perception slightly of being hard on the environment to being one where 3D printing and recycling is the preferred mode for a lot of pastil use.

 

Like the car makers of old, other manufactures of complex products will eventually realises that the market is not in the selling of the main product but in the aftermarket service and sales. This has spawned a whole industry of mechanics and service models. Shops like Shapeways are like the pre-curser to this. Providing quality printed parts in various materials. Home 3D printing, again will offer the ability to quickly iterate through prototypes and then take to a professional printing facility for final printing; if that is so desired (This is akin to going to a tailor to get your clothes altered or made up, seeking the services of the more experienced when the quality needed is above your capability).

 

The social acceptance of the hacker community:

If I’d had access to a reliable 3D printer, instead of hacking a broken suspension system on my Neato robot vacuum I could have scanned or modelled the requisite parts, printed them and then re-assembled it. Even then I was able to quickly repair this machine because of the strong maker and hacker community out there. Those that share their ideas on how to tear down devices through to those that offer the place to experiment and learn Maker shops are the initial, emerging cycle that 3D printing, along with a number of other technologies, has helped to start to change the perception of what is OK.

 

The disposable society:

In an age of use it until it breaks and then throw it away, 3D printers coupled with makers allows the repair and or repurpose of devices and components. This is where I see the hidden emerging trend. Allowing society to slowly move away from disposal of devices when components fail to repair and reuse.

 

Like the car manufacturing example above, I see a new industry forming, that of the device hacker come-repair man, akin to the old TV and VCR repair-shops of old. Rather than continuously throwing away my technology when it ceased functioning or broke, I could seek the assistance of a a Hacker shop. Where that mount was snapped, they could download or model, then print a replacement.

 

Instead of iFixit just showing people how to teardown and repair devices, there is the opportunity of a weFixit – for those tasks that are too complex or for those not capable of home repair (think of the smartphone repairs that you can get at most phone shops now. Think of a new Hacker shop model, where you can buy the parts, accessories or whatever you need, but for those that cannot quite get it together, in-store servicing  (Combining Shapeways, iFixit and the Makerbot store – Officeworks with their printshop model, sell you a printer but can just as easily print it all for you and bind it too – If they muck up the print job it’s their issue to go and fix) Something like this already exists informally in the hackerspaces that are continuously popping up.

 

Extremely long ramble short. Do not disregard something because you personally do not see the value, rather look wider than your own experience and see the opportunity. 3D printing is well past the tinker stage and moved into an industry changing model, reshaping manufacturing as we once understood it.; and yes it does have a few things it can learn from the sewing machine industry and movement at large, but it is further along than those give it credit.

 

photo credit: Hindrik S via photopin cc