Replicate This

replicator3D printing is certainly a manufacturing revolution in the making. Early success in technologies like stereolithography has paved the way for an additive manufacturing future, posed to completely turn conventional manufacturing on its head. Industrial application of 3D printing seems limitless, though there are many hurdles still regarding cost, speed, and available materials. Yet hopes for the consumer side of the equation, built on the momentum of early success like the Makerbot enthusiast community, paints a future where everyone and their dog will own a 3D printer to print all kinds of fantastic magical crap for the home. Provided, of course, your concept of fantastic magical crap is mostly rejects from the land of misfit toys. 3D printers are capable of so much more, yet the opportunity is largely wasted. While 3D printing certainly has garnered a dedicated enthusiast community, mainstream traction has been lacking. After all, consumers are already kicking conventional paper printers (and copiers) to the curb with extreme prejudice. Perhaps hanging a new market on the word “print” may not be the best idea right now. But, hey, that’s how this is going to roll.

Makerbot is arguably the pioneer in defining the print-at-home market and they were suitably rewarded via acquisition by Stratasys last year. They started the long quest towards a mainstream printing Nirvana not yet achieved. They have a solid product, a rich community of models, and even service plans for the machines themselves. Yet mainstream success is fleeting. Several other companies are now trying to tackle the consumer 3D printing space, with similar result. What’s the hold up? Simple: Most of what is printed is utterly useless.

Objection! Printing a variety of useful parts, tools, and machine elements is readily achievable using a Makerbot, or most any other 3D printer. After all, early Makerbot units were often built with parts printed by progenitor Makerbot units – fulfilling, at least in part, the whole self-replicating machine fantasy. Yet very little of this is readily apparent to anyone on the outside. There is a distinct lack of compelling applications designed to capture both the imagination and understanding of the consumer. The internet instead focuses and produces what seems like an endless parade of questionable knick-knacks. Be sure to Google “useful things printed with a Makerbot” and see just how many useless things are out there, on the island of misfit toys.

Richard Kranium, a long time friend, engineer and hobbyist, rightfully places much of the blame on marketing. (Note: I have replaced his more colorful metaphors with Farscape vernacular):

I also think part of the blame for the public’s inability to grasp the potential of 3D printing can also be placed on manufacturers (and/or their marketing geniuses) as well, because every frelling time they show you what the printer can do, it’s always some frelling Yoda print, or something similarly useless. I’m pretty sure Form Labs has a strict policy for their blog about only featuring useless figurines or artsy fartsy dren or whatever.

Hello, if all you ever demonstrate your printer with is useless dren like a frelling coat hanger shaped like a lion for no good frelling reason, then it’s little wonder the public looks at that and starts associating 3d printers with nothing but useless dren.


If we trace the history of consumer 3D printing, patterns emerge:

  • A hard to assemble and somewhat expensive, do-it-yourself kit, that with hours of dedicated modeling work prints mostly useless things.
  • An off-the-shelf though fairly expensive printer that with some careful manipulation of a downloaded model prints mostly useless things.
  • An off-the-shelf though fairly expensive printer with a dedicated library of models, some needing a few tweaks in order to print mostly useless things.
  • A smaller, cheaper printer that draws upon the same library of mostly useless things.
  • A much larger printer so that you can print an entire batch of mostly useless things at once!

The latest entrant is New Matter’s Mod T, which aims to solve the problem by making a progressively cheaper, prettier machine. It prints a curated collection of mostly useless things. And what’s the killer app cited for this latest technology iteration?

“If you and I both have Mod Ts and it’s your birthday, I [can] find a great print and send it to your printer. It just prints out and surprises you. I think things like that will make this an interesting part of our lives.”

Seriously. A printer that surprises me. By printing for hours. Perhaps a small blue bunny rabbit. Using my thermoplastic resin nonetheless. Gee thanks – you shouldn’t have!  Worst birthday ever.

Enough, already. It’s time to end the parade of mostly useless things, and turn directly to what everyone is thinking about when they see a 3D printer. They’re thinking about replicators. The very machines that with a mere voice command can deliver a spare warp coil or Earl Grey Tea, hot nonetheless. While that final vision seems so obviously distant, printing toys from libraries of freelance designers is not the right path. Consumers have limited interest for sorting, downloading, or manipulating 3D models. The focus instead needs to be on clutch utility – one likely avenue is repair and replacement parts. Parts generated not by creating a model, not by downloading it from a library, but simply offering the original to the device, or what’s left of it, scanning it, then with minimal interaction and manipulation, either duplicating or healing the original. Sure you’ll be limited to the realm of certain plastics largely, but if you happen to look around you right now, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of potential applications.

So the next time someone offers to print a bunny rabbit or Yoda on a 3D printer, tell them no thanks. Ask for something useful.