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3D printer – What will you do with it?

This question just might signal a paradigm shift. It certainly has in the past. We humans learn by thinking and doing, usually together. What will you do with your 3D printer?

When I built my first computer forty years ago, the first question my friends asked was “what will you do with it?” When I got my first high-speed internet connection twenty years ago, the first question my friends asked was “what will you do with it?” When built my first 3D printer this year, the first question my friends asked was… you guessed it. (Sadly, the second question they ask now is “can you print a gun?”)

Another commonality is the time elapsed between the arrival of these technologies and when they went mainstream. The foundations of modern computers – ENIAC, Von Neumann architecture – were invented 30 years before the home computer went mainstream. The Internet’s foundations – packet switching, APRANET – were invented 30 years before the Internet went mainstream. The precursor of the 3D printer – Rapid Prototyping – came to the industrial market 30 years before the 3D printer went mainstream. Incidentally, that that was the same year the “replicator” appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

3D printer is today's Apple II

Using a consumer 3D printer in 2015 is very much like the breakout years of personal computing and the World Wide Web. It’s a combination of of some consumer products (like Apple II, Netscape Navigator, and MakerBot) and a ton of community experimentation (like S-100 bus, hypertext, and a Rep-Rap open source 3D printer). These technology products became platforms for change with a few early killer applications – VisiCalc, World Wide Web, and Thingiverse – to demonstrate their usefulness. But equally important, they attracted enthusiastic hobbyists who wanted to learn, and in more than a few cases, to invent new products.

3D Printer Expectations

I took the “enthusiastic hobbyist” approach. Having worked through a couple of previous paradigm shifts, I had reasonable expectations about what I would do with my first 3D printer. Mainly three things, two of which were about learning.

  • First, learn the technology. There are three basic technologies in a 3D printer: motion, material and control. In short, you need a process with smooth motion in all three dimensions that lets you add material, layer by layer.
  • Second, learn the tool chain. There are three basic functions in a 3D printer tool chain: design, manufacturing and command. Design is basically CAD where you create or obtain a three dimensional model of the object you want to print. Manufacturing is about CAM, converting the model into some sort of representation that can be made. For most 3D printers this is called “slicing”, where you describe the model as a series of fraction-of-millimeter high slices of material that can be added on top of each other. Command is about converting the CAM into control codes that tell the machine how to move and add material.
  • Third, print something. Most people start off by printing calibration objects, to make sure that the printer is properly tuned up (sort of like a car’s engine) and that the dimensions sought are what is actually printed. They they move on to simple objects to demonstrate for friends and family. For me, it was making little toys for grandchildren. Lastly, they try to do something useful – like printing replacement parts or artistic pieces.

Do I expect the consumer grade 3D printer to change substantially over the next 20 or 40 years? Absolutely, yes. My 2015 3D printer will seem as archaic as an Apple II or Navigator. But, in the meantime, I am learning a lot and participating in an enjoyable community of interest.

So, is “what will you do with it” at dumb question? Absolutely not! It’s the right question. And if the technology is useful, the answers will come over time, and often in ways we never even imagined.

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