Today let’s have a look at the 3D printing ecosystem. In previous posts, I’ve covered specific points like online communities, 3D scanners and the evolution of manufacturing that led to 3D printing. This will be a global overview of all important actors that have stakes in additive manufacturing.
An Ecosystem, Really?
An interesting aspect of 3D printing is that it’s spreading everywhere. Individuals and businesses are exploring and using it alike. Individuals population is restricted right now to makers/hackers/doers but it will hopefully change overtime.
Speaking of makers, we went to the Maker fair this weekend in the bay area. And this year Formlabs was participating, and I have to say the quality of the prints was stunning! And this morning I just received the confirmation that my printer is being shipped so I’ll post update as soon as I get it.
Now let’s start with this ecosystem! I’ve split it in 4 areas with:
- The needs : why would you even consider it?
- The software : How to do generate the input data file?
- The hardware : Nature of the beast!
- The users : with a distinction between Individuals and the business side.
1/ The Needs
For professionals rapid prototyping is a great way to visualize early in the development process any design. But in some case it ca also be used to manufacture one of a kind mechanical piece that would be impossible or too expensive to mold or machine from a piece of metal.
Because 3D printer are not yet main stream, right now only technical inclined individuals (doers/makers) will have the patience to tweak a printer. They will use it to create things like games, repair household, learning tools, arts or even print any crazy projects! Note that manufacturers are really trying hard to make these printer easy to use, so the population capable of using one will increase.
Without models, a 3d printer is not really useful. Professionals have access to complete CAD software or modelers that costs thousands and need an extensive training. They can also acquire a scene/object using 3D scanners.
Individuals have simpler and mostly free tools available, some of then browser base to create new shapes. Some services like 123D let them rebuild a geometry from a series of picture. Note that most of the pro software are available for free or cheap provided you are or know a student willing to lend his name 🙂
Now the range of printer available is only limited by your budget. Each printer can go from $100ks to a few hundreds for the cheap FDM kits.
Professional have access to cindering machine that can print metal/ceramic on very large volumes. The cheap printers are today limited to filament extrusion but there is a intermediate class of device (for prosumer) few $k offers very nice accuracy like the Form 1 stereolithography printer.
As for the 3D printing world actors, there is a consolidation going on to group the resources. Some R&D centers that have a printer for themselves but, like machine shops, it does not make sense (yet) for every business to have a printer in house. So website are proposing a printing service on a large selection of material. These website are even trying to attract casual/pro designers that can expose their creation and let people order them with a markup. Printer manufacturers are also creating online communities to let user upload design. Thingiverse is one of the biggest community and very useful to find preexisting models.
Here is my view of the 3D printing ecosystem, if you have any comments please comment!