3D Printing

The Coming Ecosystem of 3D Printing

In the first of this four part article series, I will introduce the concept of the 3D printing ecosystem and outline its component parts, namely: object distribution, printer control systems and printer access networks. Future articles will look in much more detail at each part of the ecosystem with reference to the companies in the space and the services and tools they offer.

3D printing may be the most significant development since the Internet itself broke into popular consciousness over twenty years ago. Something has changed since then though — we’ve become used to the idea, in fact almost programmed to it. So much so we expect that every development in technology will bring huge new networked businesses with vast rewards to those who get there first and crack the code.

As the new generation of 3D printers came out of networks of hackers and coders who took the basics and expanded them, creating new software and hardware, it obviously would only be a matter of time before participants in these communities started to look at the implications of these networks, and whether Reeds law and Metcalf’s law would have any application here. If they do, then new businesses will arise to fill the interstices as surely as night follows day. And, unsurprisingly, those businesses are already arriving.

This is the order of things now: we expect our technology to integrate with a network (the internet of things), we expect it to offer us value and connections and developments within that network. And as the current generation have grown up watching huge value and wealth being created from the development of social networks, it is almost inevitable that any high profile development will also generate its own attempts at networked value adding businesses. 3D printers are no exception. In their essence, they are standalone machines that require local attention and management and are not, in and of themselves, amenable to remote operation (not that this will stop people trying). However, apart from connecting printers directly to remote networks, there are many interesting ways that an ecosystem of 3D printing can be developed — indeed it already is.

3D printers can, in many ways, be compared with the traditional 2D printer that sits on your desktop. The internal technology is very similar, the 3D version just adds a Z (up and down) axis to the print. The material used for printing is different, but maybe not as different as you might imagine. But the 2D printer developed as a specific standalone tool for the office or the individual. Nobody, in the early days of such printers, sat down and tried to work out how you could build a network of printers, how you could add value by layering services, connections and opportunities to the printers which sat in growing numbers of offices. There was no social network of printers because there was no network and no social media. It just couldn’t be done, it would never have occurred to anyone. Of course, in some ways there was an early network of 2D printers, only they were called faxes and there was almost no added value. Then things moved along into the Internet age and the vast network of faxes became almost obsolete, almost overnight.

We are so used to the eternal network and the overlay of social networking onto everything that it comes as no surprise that a standalone item like a 3D printer is swiftly propelled into a networked machine. Many objects that historically would have been left as standalone instances are virtually compelled to be presented as social networks. This is the ‘Internet of things’ effect.

In addition to the hardware springing from an open source and closely networked environment, the drivers and associated software that are needed to operate these machines has also sprung from the open source community. There are parallels here with early internet developments, where existing software and networking systems were adapted for internet protocol use and early explosive growth led to existing software and hardware companies noticing the opportunity and eventually coming to the table with their own solutions. A classic example would be the development of ‘winsock’ drivers that allowed a windows PC to connect to the Internet. Originally, a user had to find and install a winsock version that would work with their own machine, but eventually Microsoft integrated a winsock with Windows, removing an entire layer of connectivity software from manual installation.

This is now happening in the 3D printing industry. The drivers needed to create a connection between modelling software and the machines are available from open source projects, but Microsoft has started to integrate drivers for popular machines into Windows 8.

These digital machines rely on software and computers to operate, networks are starting to spring up around the industry. This nascent networking is giving a glimpse of whether and how we might add value to 3D printers by the application of new software and systems.

Beyond the raw machine control software and the basic 3D design software that is itself now developing at an incredible pace, we are seeing the beginnings of a more complex and elegant ecosystem that will create a global network of printers, objects and communities.

There are three fundamental parts to this ecosystem, though they all overlap, with different development approaches taking on varying parts of the chain.

Object Distribution

The original and most well known object distribution company is Thingiverse, which grew up alongside the MakerBot 3D printer development. Originally Thingiverse was an open community and as the potential of its vast store of community generated 3D files has been realised, others have entered this space in various ways. Companies such as Myminifactory, CGTrader, MXD3D and others are building commercial object stores and adding functionality that allows a mix of free and purchased files to be stored.

Printer Control Systems

Clearly these laws cannot apply to the current generation of 3D printers, as they are effectively standalone machines that rely closely on human intervention to make them work. 3D printers that can be hooked up to a network and left unattended are a dream for the foreseeable future. A printer needs to be configured, loaded with filament / resin / powder, cleaned, heated and watched as it prints. At this time, there will always be a human link in the networking chain to manage these issues. That said, once we allow for that human link in the networking chain, a 3D printer does quickly become an interesting subject for the application of Reed’s and Metcalf’s laws, which set out how networks become more valuable as more units join them. These laws are the basis of modern social network value and are the reason why any new technology development is inevitably looked at as an opportunity to create a network of value.

Individual standalone 3D printers do not necessarily gain value when networked with another 3D printer. The exception to this rule comes with the creation of a social network of available local and/or varieties of printers, made available to print files for a network of people without 3D printers, or with printers that do not have specific capabilities.

Printer Access Networks

There are two kinds of networks developing in this way: distributed networks and concentrated networks.

Rather than try to literally network the machines themselves, the most promising developments are occurring in the interstices that these machines create — around the need for files to print, the concept that they are rare and expensive and can therefore be put to work earning revenue and that there are better ways of controlling these printers than with the first generation of driver software. So when you’ve given in to temptation and bought your over-priced 3D printer, you might be tempted to try earning a few pounds from it. The new distributed printer networks such as 3D Hubs and Makexyz offer users an immediate way to connect your resource to their networks.

Examples of a concentrated network would be companies such as Shapeways and iMaterialise, where orders are fed from the network to a cluster of centralised 3D printers managed by the company.

Many other companies are entering this space as the lure of Metcalfe’s law works its spell. Finding the combination of services that adds value to each member of a network is the task for these early stage companies.

All of these ideas are abroad and have already generated a swathe of start-up companies attempting to fill these gaps and to develop new networks based on need and provision. These attempts make up what is an embryonic but fast growing ecosystem of 3D printing.

Following on from the success of companies such as Shapeways, Thingiverse and even Etsy, it is certain that one or more of the new bunch will break out of the pack in the coming year and dominate this space.

In the subsequent articles in this series I will look in more detail at each part of the ecosystem.