A lot of people have compared the rise of desktop 3d printing to that of the personal computer revolution of the 1970’s, myself included. It’s a logical comparison; they both are the commoditization of existing industrial technology by ambitious do-it-yourselfers who reverse-engineered million- dollar devices in their garage workshops and basement laboratories.
It’s also easy to predict that the two technologies may follow the same product arc, from basement to small collection of niche companies and then on to one or more “standards” sold by large-ish companies grown from that same primordial vat.
Having given this much thought however I think that this is an incorrect analogy, and I believe that a more accurate parallel can be drawn; not between the desktop 3d printer and the personal computer, nor even the laserprinter (closer but there’s a better one); I think the best analogy is between the destop 3d printer and the digital video revolution of the early 2000’s.
This relationship occured to me this morning when I was thinking about the directions various printer projects and manufacturers have taken in an effort to introduce more people to the technology. A lot of these efforts have been in the interest of improving the device; its accuracy, speed, reliability and ease of setup & maintainance. Some attention has been put into the software side of the system as well but most of these efforts again address deficiencies in the system that are important to the existing user base, the “experts” in this model.
When it became practical to record digial video on video cassette tapes the benefits of this technology were obvious to everyone working with video on a daily basis. The capability to easily capture footage from tape into a non- linear editing system without generational loss was a godsend and adoption of the format was switft in the professional and semi-pro circles who were able to take advantage of it (those outside of technical constraints on format). Several software companies sprang-up to provide tools for consuming these new formats and manufacturers began to produce hardware specifically for professionals workign with the format as well.
Over time, along with the professionals some consumers desired to adopt a digital format as well, treating it as a more durable version of previous analog formats and with this some consumer-grade equiptment was produced. This lead to the introduction of the Mini-DV format . The price of these units ranged between $500-$1000 and were generally not used along with editing software due to the cost of the sophisticated professional-grade software avaliable (along with the sophisticated skill set these tools required).
Then came iMovie
Apple released iMovie for the iMac in 1999 with a simple ad campaign demonstrating that “professional” results that could be had with nothing more than placing a Mini-DV camera and iMovie into untrained hands. iMovie worked because it allowed the user to exert just enough creative control on the output to create a sense of ownership and a feeling of creativity while still constraining creative options sufficiently to almost guarantee sucess in a time investment that was realistic for the untrained user.
This application alone drove not only iMac sales (as iMovie was bundled with these machines, which in turn possessed the necissary FireWire port common to Mini-DV cameras) but it also created an entire new class of media of sufficient quality to be consumed by the masses (a step above classic “home movies”) but created by the untrained.
Hand-in-hand with iMac sales, camera manufacturers stepped-up to meet the needs of these new filmmakers by producing cameras and related equiptment geared toward the casual or non-pro user and as a function of this increased volume, per-unit device prices dropped.
Over time iMovie has evolved to provide more and more sopisticated results, raising the quality bar of the program’s output without raising the learning curve for new users. Features such as “ The Ken Burns Effect “ which would seem absurd in a professional editing program are amoung the most used in iMovie projects (and by implementing this as a semi-automatic feature, some tastefulness can be preserved). KBE can be acheived in almost any video editing program as a series of filters, effects and keyframes but the one-click nature of applying the effect in iMovie creates an instant “ah!” result in the user which following a long chain of instructions (and usually several failed attempts) cannot.
Over time, amateur filmmaking has outgrown the old iMovie and a new iMovie has sprung-up in its place, and other digital video formats have replaced Mini-DV but an entire new class of video producer and consumer has sprung up around this event (you might even consider YouTube a bi- product of this) and entirely new markets have been formed where before there was none.
When I look at desktop 3d printing’s history, I see similar lines. The 3d printer is unlike the personal computer in that the device itself isn’t the “blank canvas” that the general-purpose stored-program computer was; it is a means of translating ideas inside the GP computer into the physical realm. This isn’t a knock against the device, to the contrary as mentioned above it is similar to the relationship between the laser printer and traditional paper publishing. It’s hard to believe but before 1984, if you wanted print-quality flyers or a newsletter or the like you were still taking the work to a commercial publishing house who would print these items for you (but only in large quantities), and the idea of printing even a ‘draft’ of the work to verify the layout was unimaginable. The invention of the affordable ($2500) laser printer made the capability of generating print-grade output at home a reality.
But even the mighty laser printer was limited in value until it was paired with a WYSIWYG editing system which first arrived with the Apple Macintosh . In a few short years this combination replaced all small-to-medium-scale print publishing, carving a market out of the commercial sector and placing it on the desks of individuals and small businesses.
This is where the 3d printer is different from the laser printer. At the moment there is no significant commercial market for producing 3d objects at the demand of the individual or small business. There are a handful of companies that cater to this audience, but as in the case of digital video, most people don’t know they need it until they have it in their hands. The pairing of an affordable ($2500), reliable desktop 3d printer with an empowering editing system (along the lines of iMovie) is what will open the door to a new market of individual and small-business creativity, breeding predictable and unpredictable marketplaces alike. Devices within reach of this goal exist now, however as of this writing a creative tool that strikes a balance between creativity and automation, targetted at the right audience has not yet appeared.
It is my intention to investigate the creation of such a tool and to lay the foundation for its creation, to erect it on my own or to participate and shape the work of others toward this goal. As recent events have demonstrated , the power of this new tools while within grasping distance of the general public is also at risk of slipping back into the professional market (akin to Unix and the workstation , which due to cost and complexity remained accessible only to professionals for decades) if no action is taken to drive the technology into the hands most likely to find new and innovative applications for it.
note: if you find any factual errors in this post please leave a comment, I’m writing from memory in an effort to get the thoughts down before they evaporate but will gladly make corrections where necessary