There's lots of talk about what 3D printers could do--- from printing food and household objects, to homes, and even organ tissue, to name a few. And while it's true that 3D printing could mean the next industrial revolution, it still has a long way to go.
Last weekend, I spoke with design and user experience strategy consultant, Ani Abgaryan, about where 3D printing is at right now, and what needs to happen in order for it to have to become more mainstream.
Originally trained as an architect, but always an artist at heart, Ani participated in the design and construction management of the first Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, Armenia. Today, this center is still one of the biggest youth educational centers for software development and design in Eastern Europe, with three other campuses in Armenia. While pursuing her passion for spatial and environmental design, Ani became interested in User Experience (UX) design for software. This led her to work with companies like Proteus Digital Health, where she worked with their UX team to improve the experience of tracking digital health. Her design agency also consulted for Google, Vicinity Commerce and Waypoint Building on user interface and user experience design.
With plans to use 3D printing for large social impact projects, Ani and her co-founder have been exploring the use of 3D printing for healthcare, non-profits, and experimental art projects. There is a huge potential for 3D printing to revolutionize industries like fashion, jewelry, interior design, the automobile and aircraft industries, as well as construction.
Given her multidisciplinary background in design, Ani sees interesting parallels between the evolution of the user experience design for 3D printing and computing. Just like software and personal computers had to undergo major development in order to be intuitive and accessible enough for the general public to use, so must 3D printing.
Here's what Ani believes must happen to 3D printing in order for it to have a much wider reach and impact:
1. Affordability and access
While 3D printers have become significantly cheaper in the last few years, right now you can buy a good cheap one for a little less than $500, but only a decade ago, they were over $100,000. While 3D printers have gotten much cheaper, you still need to also buy a 3D scanner, and all the raw materials you need for printing. While plastics are most commonly used for printing, certain kinds of 3D printing may use steel, stainless steel, titanium, gold, and silver. Some more unusual 3D printing projects can even utilize bio-ink, bone material, hot glue, or glass. Each of these different kinds of mediums would usually require that you buy a separate 3D printer, unless you are working with a more advanced printer that can actually combine multiple materials.
2. Smaller learning curve
While it's gotten much easier to make prototypes for digital ideas, like apps and websites, 3D printing is still a much more complicated and confusing process. In order to print a 3D render of something, you must first develop a 3D model using a mathematical representation of the three-dimensional surface of an object, which can be created using computer-aided design (CAD) tools. Unlike regular printing, with 3D printing, you always have to think about fragility. Everything in your model has to have volume, so that it's sturdy enough to not break. While some technologies could theoretically allow you to print something as thin as 0.016mm, anything that thin would instantly break as soon as you touched it.
After you've created this file, you can either print it yourself if you have your own 3D printer, or find an online service that you can outsource it to. Either way, you still have to check to ensure that your model is a "solid mesh," where all the edges of the polygons are connected to each other, using manifold geometry. If 3D printing is to be used by the general public, it needs to be much easier to create and properly use 3D files.
3. File compatibility
Software designers have countless programs to choose from, depending on how technical they are or not. No matter what software you use for digital design, files can always easily be converted in and out of PDF and vector format. For 3D printing, there are more than 5 different file types you could be working with. There's still a long way to go before the 3D rendering software is unified enough to easily convert one file type to another, without losing valuable information that is required for stable 3D printing. In order for 3D printing to become more accessible, there needs to be software that makes these files much easier to create and export.
4. Cheap (or even free) ways to learn
If you want to learn how to use your computer better or gain proficiency with a specific software, there are endless tutorials on the internet. Since many companies and small businesses use their blogs and YouTube channel as a means of advertisement and lead generation, there is no shortage of free educational content. However, there is much less good content available online for 3D printing, since online and offline communities for 3D printing aficionados are still in their infant stages with this newer technology.
5. Practical applications for regular people
While 3D printing might appeal to your geeky side or inner child, most people won't rush to buy a 3D printer until you can print out your favorite jacket or pair of shoes. While you can already make a render and print a model of many common household items, you probably won't find a plastic jacket to be that comfortable. Although some newer kinds of 3D printers can print fabric, these are still in their earlier stages, and more combinations of materials need to be created in order to make 3D printed goods more comfortable and stylish.
Likewise, Ani's colleagues are also working on a 3D printer to make hamburgers, along with 3D printers that can be used for robotic architecture to build houses. So the future is coming, but it's not quite all the way here yet.