As the co-founder and CEO of 3D printer manufacturing company Mcor Technologies, Conor MacCormack cannot be completely unbiased in his views on 3D printing. However, his vision for the industry — and how it will affect the world at large — has been set out in a recently released white paper. With oodles of positivity and indirect, fairly subtle pointers as to why the Mcor process has a long term future in terms of sustainable production, Conor’s vision provides some interesting insights and opinions based on a firm belief system that sits at the very core of the family run business.
The title of the white paper — A 3D Printer for Everyone — can leave you in no doubt as to how Conor’s vision is shaped. There will be many that disagree with this, but equally as many who agree. As a vendor of 3D printers the cynics are likely to dismiss this out of hand with comments akin to “he has to say that, his business is based on printer sales.” This is true, up to a point, but a couple of things on that. First, Conor is a business man, no disputing that, but he is one of the few in this industry that I believe, having spent time with him and the key Mcor team over many years, that also see the big picture — and while £/€/$ signs are important, they not achieved by sacrificing ethics. Furthermore, ethics are what shape his vision, his work, and, Mcor’s 3D printers.
Let’s take a close look at what Conor is setting out: In his introduction he says: “we’ll look back on this time in history and remember it as the start of a revolution – a revolution that will provide a 3D printer for everyone.” Acknowledging the ‘hype’ issue, he credits it with being a force for good, saying: “The promise of 3D printing is as big as 2D printing. If we can take this hype and convert it to a technology with a purpose, the possibilities are endless. I relish our industry’s challenge of creating a 3D printer for everyone, an ecosystem to support it and the true democratisation of innovation. It’s part of the personal quest I’ve been on for most of my life: to revolutionise the way we design, innovate and communicate.”
By acknowledging that we are only at the beginning with “much work to be done” Conor has firmly placed his foundations in reality. He goes on to frame this in the context of consumer 3D printing, noting that his current workspace — the industrial sector — is a different space altogether and more advanced in awareness and uptake with “the world’s foremost engineering organisations, including NASA, GE, Airbus, Nike, Ford and Honda …. deep into the reality, using high-end professional-class machines to achieve real business results.”
In terms of consumer 3D printing, however, Conor’s view is that this is currently actually dominated by makers, the “technically savvy early adopters who have gone online, purchased hobbyist 3D printers and tinkered with the technology in large part for the joy of it.” Users — the general man/woman on the street, are only just starting to engage and are “less driven to master every 3D aspect of 3D printing, but just as interested in the technology’s ability to make things they need.”
Conor goes on to tackle the issues that need to be addressed to meet the needs of the consumer of tomorrow to make it right for every home: “3D printers will need to be faster, safer and more powerful, versatile, convenient and affordable (to purchase and operate).“
To many, this is not new news, these things do need to happen, IF 3D printers are to become common home appliances.
Here’s how Conor breaks these issues down, he doesn’t hold back, and its scope goes wider than Mcor too:
“Speed. This is a big one. Today’s fastest 3D printers are actually slow when you think of the consumer even producing parts at a rate of 25 millimeters per hour. That means a Rubik’s Cube takes 2.5 hours. In an age when you can be touring the Smithsonian in the time it takes to tap your iPhone, consumers will expect 3D printed parts to be made in minutes. That’s the goal I’m setting for this industry. It’s ambitious, I know, but not out of the bounds of possibility.
Materials. Consumers will dictate applications and applications will dictate material requirements. The 3D printer of the future will use new materials to create models of astonishing properties – extreme strength, “wired” (with printed circuits, processors and batteries), or implantable in the human body. As engineers well know, material properties are extremely important. For instance, will the replacement handle for your saucepan stand up to repeated heating, cooling and hoisting of heavy contents? If not, it could be painful to find out.
Affordability. Although we’re still above the sweet spot, the prices of 3D printers, as well as the materials they use, will steadily fall even as the quality rises. I believe heated competition and economies of scale will bring professional-class, consumer 3D printing within the reach of everyone who can afford a TV, computer or rent today. It happened with document printers.
There’s a twist to the affordability problem. Most 3D printer companies operate on the “razor and blade” business model: sell the core equipment at an attractive price and mark up the supplies. Well, we’re now seeing extremely high markups on 3D printing build material – 100 times or more. This model punishes the user for using the equipment and directly contradicts the whole point of 3D printing for designers and engineers: printing multiple iterations of a design until the design is perfect. I believe that for a 3D printer to reach the home these differentials need to reduce considerably.
Safety. As an industry, we’re all responsible for making 3D printers safe for consumers. We’ll need to create 3D printers that operate with benign materials at temperatures that don’t stray too far from that of the room, or at least safely shield the heat from users and their environments. Once printed, the models will need to be ready for use without requiring sharp tools or chemicals to clean them up – or any cleanup at all, for that matter. From start to finish, consumer 3D printing will need to be safe, clean and automated.
Eco-friendliness. This concern goes hand in hand with safety. Consumers will rightly demand that their 3D printers – including the device’s components, the materials used, the fabrication process and any required cleanup – be easy on the environment.
Colour. Consumers will rightly expect their 3D printers to offer the same infinite gamut at the same resolution they enjoy in their colour document printers and in the products they purchase from stores every day. You don’t watch black and white TV, do you? We think, see, design and dream in colour.
Ease of use. The 3D printer of the future will shield consumers from all the complexity of designing a new object. We also need to give users unfettered power to invent things from their imagination as well as the practical ability to capture 3D images of the real-world objects they want to replicate. Remember, on a document printer it’s no harder to print a drawing of a jet engine than a recipe for chicken soup. The printer doesn’t care; it just prints. 3D printing needs to offer the same ease of use. Let’s use a toaster analogy: you pop in a slice of bread (your file), press the button and a few minutes later, out pops your toast – your printed model!”
Beyond the 3D printers themselves though, he does go on to expand on the other factors that will also be of importance to consumer uptake, most notably the things that go to make up the whole ecosystem around 3D printing — design software, scanners and scanning capabilities, downloadable designs, mobile apps and retail outlets / services.
Conor concludes that: “This is the vision I’ve embraced since 2005 when my brother, Fintan, and I scratched out our design for a 3D printer on the back of a napkin. And this vision explains why we ensured our 3D printer would be safe from the first prototype ….. As a company and an industry, we’ve progressed faster than I ever thought we would.”
I can certainly identify with that! And, one of the things that occurred to me while reading Conor’s vision paper, which can be read in full on the Mcor website, is that Mcor 3D printers are currently sold as industrial 3D printers — a fact largely dictated by their size and price. I have an inkling, however, that contrary to other industrial 3D printing trends of scaling up, Mcor might be looking to scale down.
Now that would make things (even more) interesting!