Just as pundits predict that Brazil will be the next economic superpower, a 3D printing revolution is always right around the corner. But 3D printing has still not caught on with consumers. Why?
Let’s think about the types of customers who typically want a 3D printer.
- Creative hobbyists see 3D printing as the way to make all their artistic dreams come true. They think it, therefore they can make it.
- Practical do-it-yourselfers imagine printing custom pieces to replace broken parts. They will never have to go to a hardware store again!
So these eager folks buy a 3D printer and download some 3D files from Thingiverse. Voila, they print out their first key chain! Everything is fine, despite the occasional filament jamming, until they decide to design something original. And that’s where everything falls apart. Legacy created 3D PRINT KITS (™) to help beginners learn the ropes and provide guided instruction in printing and assembling a clock and guitar. But our Kits are only incrementally more customizeable than what is currently offered online.
Creating a 3D model from scratch, or even editing an existing file, is very difficult, with a steep learning curve. Even if you successfully figure out all the different design tools, people simply have a hard time thinking in 3D (some more than others). First, mental rotation ability varies widely from person to person. Second, it takes an enormous amount of practice to think about subtracting space from a 3D object (which is why sculpting and woodcarving are so difficult). Finally, designing things to be water-tight and with surfaces and support structures that allow for actual 3D printing is really challenging.
One of the easiest 3D modeling tools is Tinkercad, a free entry level product from Autodesk with many accompanying tutorials. However, even Tinkercad can’t address the difficulty of thinking in 3D using a 2D screen. (Try the tutorials and see for yourself.) Will 3D design and printing ever get easy enough to reach the mass market? Or is 3D printing only for the highly skilled?
There are some possible new design tools on the horizon that may soon allow novices to more easily create in 3D. If you haven’t yet seen this breathtaking video of Google’s Tilt Brush, a 3D painting tool using virtual reality, check it out. What if you could create or modify a 3D model in VR? It would likely be easier than it is now, as you physically move your body around the virtual object, seeing and manipulating it from all perspectives.
Another tool that is quickly maturing and becoming affordable is 3D cameras that capture the shape and dimensions of a physical object, automatically turning them into 3D files that can be modified using any 3D software. Imagine how tempting it will be, (but unfortunately illegal), to take a picture of your favorite action figure with one of these specialized cameras. You can even edit the resulting 3D model, to add a cape or some other article of clothing, before printing out your unique version. Cameras like this are already included with HP Sprout computers, and coming soon to mobile via Google and Lenovo’s Project Tango devices and Intel’s RealSense.
So help is around the corner, but until 3D graphics software becomes easier to use, I don’t expect the consumer market for 3D printers to take off. The education market, however, is a different story…for next time.