MakerNet - 3D Printing Industry
3D Printing


Here I take a fully speculative view of the current business models shaped around 3D printing and what they may look like a few years down the line as the evolution of this technology continues apace. Some in the 3D Printing community compare this technology with the Internet, which few can deny changed pretty much everything — from work to play, money to sex. 3D printing has been forecast in some circles to be just as disruptive. Combining these two technologies, which is happening already, is only going to bring disruption at a whole new level. 

Mention online 3D print shop outlets to one familiar with the business model and names such as i.Materialise, Shapeways and Cubify roll off the tongue. Numerous companies are being established with similar services – just this week London’s new bricks and mortar 3D print store, iMakr, announced it’s own online 3D print service.

The online 3D Print shop that can offer the widest range of input methods: Web apps and browser extensions, email and postal services for disks, and, for the wider market, smartphone apps.

App’s are already emerging to simplify the process, such as Sculpteo’s 3D printing Collaborative Design Maker and it’s range of personalized cups, vases and so forth. Userfication of platforms to further ease the main obstacle to mass-market saturation, simplicity, is under way.

The future? By 2030 the 3D Print Shop will not be extant as an individual entity, merely part of the services offered by what remains of the high street and in hypermarkets. Before then: mergers and acquisitions, with cheaper ways to produce more materials being the onus. By 2030 I’ll be choosing vegetarian only menu options if I can’t drive by my local bio-printing Fast Food restaurant – 3DP applications will have found their niches and become simplified enough to be an unnoticeable part of everyday life.

3D printer networks are more recent. Make and 3D Hubs are early initiators of this business model and offer to link printers with makers, designers with consumers. This phenomenon is arguably the most transformational, and certainly excites me the most. Here, perhaps, lays the key to a whole new world of production.

Whilst home 3D printing is years away for most potential users, the chance to have your personalized item printed by someone who does own a 3D printer in a competitive pricing marketplace for 3D prints creates a decentralized economy. As the cost of printing materials comes down, and the prevalence of 3D printers increases to reduce postage costs, a brave new world of home manufacturing becomes not just possible but plausible.

The future? Most cities in ‘developed economies’ will have accessible home 3D printer networks within a few years, albeit some sparsely populated. The largest social benefits will be for national economies that are not as ‘developed’ – as internet access spreads and small remote communities come together to invest in a 3D printer. The long-term uptake for these networks will be greatest in China and India: where the greatest need, thus demand, for uplifting the masses from poverty appears.

Already the online 3D-printables repository field looks distinctly over saturated: Many tens have emerged within the past year, some fantastic work has been put in by a number of teams across the globe. It’s worth noting that many 3D file repositories already existed that harbor compatible files even before conic repository MakerBot’s Thingiverse ushered in the era of the 3D printable targeted repository for open-source files.

Although the largest, Thingiverse is now one of many – MakerBot may not have aided their cause with a public relations incident late last year when the wording of it’s legal script was changed, causing misinterpretation from users who believed the rights to their work to have been assimilated (akin to what Instagram users later experienced), resulting in a number of alternatives to be spawned within the week. Those alternatives have continued to grow. And grow.

Positively, this market saturation produces competition: only the better facilities will survive.

The future? By 2030, Walmart-esque corporate monoliths will own the largest slice of the download-able 3D printing pie of sale-able items, indeterminable from other, traditional buy and deliver/collect online shopping. Heavy regulation of sale-able, and open-source, 3D printable files, whether via traditional company or home user, will exist – along with the defining copyright battle of the 21st century.

Repository and search engine will merge quickly, as service providers seek innovative ways to crack visual search and the descriptive elements required to find particular items. Expect to see 3D visualization methods peak early and new entry methods such as match-my-sketch (quickly rough a 3D form to search for it’s shape equivalents) and even voice-to-visual (for the sight impaired) search emerge.

The future? By 2030, mind-controlled inputs and holographic displays for your future 3D-printables Search Engine. Too sci-fi? Both technologies are forecast to be emergent within that time-frame, the ‘3D search input problem’ will be persistent, and persistent problems cause persistent innovation. Next year we could be looking at entering search criteria in blinks on our Google Glass display…

Maker networks. The social network for makers has been surprisingly slow off the starting blocks: various online communities have emerged, but what of the network of makers connecting to collaborate online, using cloud based services to create designs and plans, exchange thoughts and evaluate work. Arguably Thingiverse facilitates this function, with social elements such as Like and Follow, and allows users to dip into each others 3D-printables to create their own version.

The potential is far greater. The Facebook of 3D printing is inevitable – indeed the Twitter @name is already taken. For now, the usual hangouts of the 3D printing fraternity, from the RepRap forums to the, highly active, Google+ 3D printing Group, the Github repositories for 3D printer program code and Ponoko’s API’s for platform based development are all there. If any readers are familiar with existing or planned networks, sharing in the comments section may arouse the interest and gratitude of fellow readers.

The internet, and 3D printing, already go hand in hand. Without the explosion of internet use, a transition from urban to digital landscapes massively quicker than the transition from rural to urban, 3D printing’s potential would be far less. Sure, it may all have just developed a different way – those open-source files would be bundled on CD-ROMs with printers with ‘Thingi-shops’ popping up on many high streets selling disk collections and the latest fashion for printable items. Possibly with a coffee service and mellow jazz background music!

Instead, networked computing means that we have the beginnings of a different kind of ‘Internet of Things’ – less about somewhat spooky networked monitoring of your tumble drier’s digital systems, more about an internet of 3D printable creations that are actively participated in by demographically and geographically disparate contributors.

3D printer networks, 3D-Printables Search, Maker networks: These concepts are recent, new.

New ideas create more lateral thought, and over-excitement, in projections. After all, it’s still just as empirical a proposition to suggest that by 2030, at best, 3D printing will be experiencing a minor retro comeback for those who missed a passing fad the first time round in the 2010’s.

How can we shed light on the crystal ball?

Next time, with considerable ambition, I’ll be looking at ways we can create a more scientific epistemology of projection for 3D printing technologies, and their impact upon the global economy.

[NB: Repository 3DLT, 3D printer network Makexyz, 3D search engine &a social network marketplace announced they had teamed up last week the day after the proof of this article was written – impartially regarding who achieved it: it’s great to see these concepts catalysing for social benefit.]