3D Printing has had a hell of a road, with a flurry of press about it being the future, being featured in episodes of Grey's Anatomy printing out human tissue (somehow), but now appears to be hitting a wall of reality. Christina Warren of Mashable, in a grounding, brutal yet fair piece said that it would "never be a thing," despairing that simple tasks were just not happening consistently. The truth is that the 3D printing industry is, as bizarre as it is to say, a real industry that isn't quite for real people. The dream of 3D printing yourself a set of forks in minutes is far from being a present experience, with Warren's experience being one of many where it's remained horribly inconsistent. However, companies like Makerbot and Shapeways have continued to grow, focusing on the industrial side that can accept the errors that may take place during the process as a necessary evil compared to the cost savings and convenience of making objects. Sadly, customers aren't quite as tolerant. They want to print, in 3D, with the ease they would a letter or a picture.
As with many consumer-device issues, the problem is in the hands of the software according to John Carrington, CEO and founder of ZVerse, a cloud-based 3D printing solutions company.
"Companies struggle to find ways to take ideas from 2D concepts into the 3D object world. The reason is because they don't have the software to bridge the gap." He's right, too--3D Printing today harkens back to the days of serial-bus based printing with giant cables, dodgy drivers and hellishly confusing manuals.
If you think about 2D drawings as a form of data, converting them into 3D objects takes a lot of interpretation, translation and a totally different way of considering them. You take a picture, or write a letter, or copy-paste something and it's on a piece of paper. The very object you're printing onto is not actually the product, the content printed onto it is. A 3D printed object in comparison is both the thing being printed onto and the content. That's where the breakdown starts.
"The 3D printing industry has realized it has a bottleneck in the creation of 3D printable content," said Carrington. "And solving the content creation problem for 3D printing could spark huge adoption across all major industries from healthcare to manufacturing, education and beyond."
Carrington is far from the only person to try and solve the problem, and acknowledges that the 3D printing problem lies in the content itself. It's enough to give most people a headache, let alone experienced so-called techies that thought this would be an easily surmountable issue. To Carrington, the focus on the content itself is also where people will find gold in the rush to make 3D printing a truly pervasive thing. "I experimented with 3D printers as a hobby and quickly realized that creating 3D printable content was super difficult even for someone with a tech background. It was obvious that solving the 3D content creation problem could present a huge opportunity, so we set out to solve it."
While "3D printing software solutions" sounds like something a startup madlibs generator spat up, it's a major part of what's helping startups use 3D printing without the costs. The more reliable printers can cost in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands, and you'll need an experienced person to run them. An old client I worked with used one to create 3D printed jewelry in metals, without having to invest their capital into the actual printers and manpower themselves. Think of it like outsourcing the manufacturing of clothing; you may be able to design a piece of clothing, but can you get the exact process done yourself? Far from it. Hence a bizarre industry of outsourced printing in my mind may grow much larger than the hardware itself.
Stratasys, for example, sells both the printers and solutions for the actual creation and delivery of parts, recognizing the ramp-up issues many have with 3D printing in the same way that Carrington and his team has. It wouldn't surprise me to see 3D printing become more like a bespoke suit service--you tell them what you want, they measure it out and you receive it in the mail, or possibly your warehouse if you have a real job, unlike me.
The truth is that 3D printing is seriously lacking in definition. While we all dream of being able to print ourselves a chair at home (okay, I just dream of that), or perhaps a much higher-level one of having a human heart printed and saving someone's life, it's not here yet, and it's going to be decades before it happens. And when it does, I don't think it's going to be a situation where we're doing it ourselves. All hail our new software overlords, I suppose.