3D printers: We want what we want when we want it
A group supported by the P2P foundation, an organization that studies the impact of peer-to-peer technology, recently completed a survey of 3D printer users, titled Manufacturing in Motion. This was a survey of open-source users of the low-cost 3D printers (less than $4K). From a macro perspective, you can divide present 3D printer users into two main groups: makers and professional engineering users. Each has different expectations of 3D printers. Based on the survey findings, it’s clear that one reason for the differences is experience—professionals may want more and better features, but they understand the difficulties involved in developing them. Makers, on the other hand, appear to have no appreciation for the technical challenges. Can technology advance quickly enough to keep makers happy?
The survey dives into the wants, and needs of the maker group. The researchers, who plan to conduct this survey annually, asked people from the following groups:
•Developers, approached through mailing lists and hackerspace discussion lists.
•End users, approached with the help of a few 3D printing services, such as Shapeways, Ponoko, Fabbaloo, and twitter.
•Early adopters, found through RepRap users mailing list and twitter feeds and blogs.
More than 260 respondents answered the questions. The average respondent was a 35 year-old male from Europe or North America. And 56% have at least a bachelor level degree. A telling statistic is that a large number of the respondents first began using 3D printers in 2010.
Asked what were the most common uses for their 3D printer, respondents were allowed to make multiple selections, which were:
• Functional models: 144 times
• Artistic items: 140 times
• Spare parts to devices: 133 times
• Research/educational purposes: 128 times
• Direct part production: 113 times
These respondents use the following 3D printers, listed in order of popularity: RepRap, MakerBot, Objet and ZCorp, 3D Systems, and Stratasys. Others included EOS, Dimension, Bits from Bytes, Ultimaker, Botmill, ExOne, Fortus, Makibot, Printrbot, Solidscape and Envision Tec.
It has taken about 25 years to get to a point where entrepreneurs developed low-cost 3D printers. It’s interesting to note, though, that these printers did not emerge until some patents expired, thereby taking advantage of others’ research. So, a question to consider is, Are these printers harder to develop than one might assume, given that it was not done until patents expired? Or, was it a timing issue, and the time is right, now?
The low-cost versions, like the Cube, print parts with an accuracy and quality that is about on par with systems introduced about 6 years ago. While this quality may not be sufficient for a number of applications, it is a testament to the capabilities of these low-cost printers.
However, the new users of this technology display an expectation of what these systems should be capable of that seems to disregard, or be ignorant of, the history of how we arrived at this level of development. The new users want improvements in these low-cost systems in the following areas:
• 166 want part quality from these systems to be better
• 108 want these low-cost systems to print metal materials
• 119 want them to print faster
• 106 what the price of these low-cost printers to be even less than they are now
• 115 want material prices for these systems to be cheaper
They were allowed to make multiple selections here as well.
Some comments the respondents made were: the quality of the printed plastic parts “looks like the cheapest crap…” They want printers where both software and hardware are easier to build, more plug-and-play, and more user friendly. Said one respondent, “the learning curve is too high.” They feel there is insufficient social cooperation to help them gain the answers and expertise they need. They also see the protection of intellectual property rights (patents) as a hindrance and so would like holders of the patents to relinquish them. They want $200 units with easy to use re-fills.
That’s an interesting list of wants. But it strikes me as naive, both technically and from a business perspective. There’s nothing wrong with wanting improvements. But users of these low-cost printers need to understand that these units did not manifest overnight. Patent expiration not withstanding, low-cost 3D printers are still in development. They are still an experiment. Instead of makers complaining about what they don’t have, they should find a way to advance the technology so that it delivers what they want. And I’m looking forward to see what they develop!