Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Industrial 3D Print applications demand the best materials

In 3D printing, its often about whether the material supports the application. To illustrate this, consider ULTEM 9085, a flame retardant high performance thermoplastic for direct digital manufacturing (a.k.a 3D printing or 'additive' manufacturing) and rapid prototyping.

ULTEM is ideal for the transportation industry due to its high strength-to-weight ratio and what is called it FST (flame, smoke, and toxicity) rating. It's also about aesthetics. Many customers wish to mask dirt or grease in mechanical system such as under the hood of a truck, or in the fuselage of an aircraft, or on the manufacturing floor. A black material avoids the need for paint jobs and hide scratches. And parts require far less 'finishing', a time saver.

There could be nothing more dirty than around the wheels of a transport truck. Watch and learn why truck fender and accessory manufacturer Minimizer uses ULTEM when creating both fender and mounting component prototypes:

Video of Minimizer mechanical engineer, Martin Larsen speaking about ULTEM 9085

Medics are printing in 3D today

While there is excitement about the possibility of bio printing human tissue and even whole organs such as kidneys, more established 'additive' manufacturing is finding practical application among medics today.

Stories of using a 3D printer to enrich the lives of disabled people are appearing. In one case, a little girl called Emma had an exoskeleton printed to her exact requirements. In another story, a start up founded by industrial designer Scott Summit is showing how 3D printing can be used to manufacture unique prosthetic leg fairings.

Now, surgeons in the UK are using an Objet Eden printer to help them plan the reconstruction of the knee of a solider wounded in Iraq.

The work is directed by Professor Justin Cobb from London Imperial Collage, and will produce precise knee joint models for the titanium plates that will be used. The idea is to reconfigure the bones more quickly and avoid the need to replace the entire knee. CT scanning is used to capture slices of the knee joints and ligaments.

The complex models of the shattered knee are rendered using the SolidWorks software. They are transferred to the Objet configured to print using a bio-compatible material called MED 610. This allows for prolonged contact with human skin, up to 30 days, i.e. during the entire surgical intervention and initial recovery - prior to insertion of the final personalized titanium plates.

The 3D model gives pre-operative visual and tactile information, but also the intra-operative guidance to assist the planning and undertaking of the surgery.

The story coming out of Imperial Collage has resonances with the printing of a detailed human foot in which specialized musculoskeletal modelling software from Anybody Technology was employed. AnyBody software also runs as a plug-in for SolidWorks.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Inside the Bot Queue and the 3D "Factory of the Future"

If you are based in the US, and recently used Shapeways to print our your 3D model, it would have been shipped to you via UPS, without exception, from their fabrication plant in the Netherlands. As of June 2012, Shapeways have shipped more than one-million user-created objects around the world. Hardly what it means to have a 3D printer in your home!

Shapeways are now expanding their additive manufacturing capacity by creating what they call a "Factory of the Future" in New York City. The new 25,000 square foot facility will be able to print as many as five million products a year. It will house between thirty to fifty industrial-size 3D printers.

That's OK for the 'Bots' (a common name for a 3D printer) but what about unemployment!?

The number of direct human jobs created by Shapeways move into NYC will be tiny. They hint at fifty new 'high tech' roles. That should not be a surprise. Future 3D print shops will be all machines. Additive manufacturing puts the 'manufacturing' into the hands of designers and consumers, not factory workers. To illustrate: Shapeways uses software to route jobs to their bots. When a machine finishes one object, it simply asks for the next in the queue. Simple!

Listen to how NYC Mayer Bloomberg promotes 3D Printing and the Shapeways facility:

Anyone setting up a similar factory full of 3D Printers is also going to need a way to route jobs to the bots. Future 3D fabrication plants will no doubt consist of many kinds of machines, each capable in different additive or complementary manufacturing methods, so it will be necessary to analyze incoming 3D digital models and root them to queues corresponding to each machine type. Ponoko, another Web based on-demand factory that provides 'subtractive' laser cutting and CNC routing in addition to 'additive' 3D printing, must also have deployed job scheduling systems to run its operation.

The open source 'maker' community are also chasing job control. Bot armies are popping up all over the planet. In the video below you will see a fleet (or array) of thirty RepRaps. They are owned by a tiny outfit called Aleph Objects based in Colorado. Take a look at a video as one guy tends the machines:

The need for 3D print job scheduling is growing, and as expected open source is coming to the rescue. BotQueue is a Web dashboard and software that lets you control multiple 3D bots through the Internet and turn them into your very own 'Factory of the Future'.

BotQueue was created by Zack "Hoeken" Smith, a co-founder of MakerBot Industries where he dealt with running a fleet of MakerBots in operation.

As Zack says "Now you can build the robot army you've always dreamed of".

Listening to the NYC Major's speech with its flowing oratory about the potential of 3D printing to bring manufacturing home, it strikes me that the world of Venture Capital (VC) circling around hot start ups such as MakerBot Industries and Shapeways, is light years from the RepRap 'maker' culture of which Aleph Objects is an example. Yet none of that activity would not be possible without prior twenty years of private investment in R&D that enabled the slew of low cost parts, software and electronics required to 'make' bots and bot factories. I do hope the VCs now homing in on next generation manufacturing will place their bets rather better than those who backed projects with no business model and which led to the Dot Bomb bubble of the late 90s.

How to save the world from Pologons! Uformia's Volumetric Modelling for 3D Printing

In this video, a sketch based user interface is able to quickly create 3D models with symmetric inner structures, such as fruit and vegetables, volcanoes and anatomical models. The idea is that 'volumes' can then be sliced , diced, duplicated and modified, using existing CAD operations, yet preserving the volumetric structure.  The mesh is re-calculated.

Volumetric modelling is an active field of research with obvious applications to 3D printing.

Uformia, founded by Cherie Stamm and Turlif Vilbrandt, is building a completely new volume-based paradigm for 3D modeling which they call Digital Materialization (DM). It gives expert modellers new capabilities, and offers a more intuitive modelling approach for novices.

Skip over to the Uformia Kickstarter campaign video:

Imagine how a piece of clay is pulled and pushed into new shapes and you'll get the idea. To quote the Uformia FAQ "It means the object is a piece of malleable material, not a collection of paper sheets glued together. Whatever you do to it, you still have a valid solid object, unlike in traditional solid modeling, where objects can have cracks and other surface issues."

In traditional CAD, 3D objects are modelled using 2D primitives. The 3D object is approximated by a mesh of flat polygons. The Uformia software reduces every object to its mathematical function, allowing for the modelling of everything from the micro-structure (e.g. of a bone) to its general shape. 

We've previously written about how specialised plug-ins to CAD software are appearing to handle all kinds of specialized modelling manipulations. To introduce volumetric modelling to the market, a Uformia plug-in called Symvol is now available for the popular Rhino software. Take a close look at the Uformia showcase. The Symvol plug-in is just the start of Uformia's vision for re-inventing 3D Design and Fabrication software. The advantages include:
  • Infinite level of detail, matching the ability of 3D printers to reproduce fine details
  • Hierarchical structures at different levels of scale, as in real world objects
  • Organic bending of soft and sharp objects, matching the ability of 3D printers to reproduce fluid forms
  • Model surfaces remain valid, irrespective of any changes made by the user
  • Morphing of one object to another, allowing a 3D printer to print a series of related objects
  • Customization of objects to produce variants, perhaps 3D printing a batch
  • Algorithms that help create 3D integrity, surface and watertightness 'readiness' for 3D printing
  • Smaller file sizes than mega-meshes, yet still able to describe complex models, great for collaboration

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Consumers will collaborate with Designers via 3D Printing and Web services

I've been writing a lot recently about the way software is central to 3D printing. I don't just mean the (usually proprietary) software to drive the printer, or the CAD package used, but the fact that once a product is digitized, it becomes amenable to all kinds of manipulation - prior to materialization.

In one case study, a bracket was structurally optimized and ended up looking more like a tree root, weighing less yet with greater strength. In another, moving joints were inserted into a model through an automated structural analysis. In yet another, specialized biomedical modelling software was used to create detailed 'working' models of a human foot. In a consumer story, a hobbyist wrote software to allow him to print 'tunes' onto plastic disks, which could then be played on a child's Fisher-Price toy player!

The use of software in 3D printing does not stop at manipulation. Software and workflow systems can foster productive new relationships between designers and customers, and between producers and consumers. Think wikis for 3DP processes.

To illustrate this potential 3DSystems has announced the availability of custom guitars on The idea is that when purchased through their service, professional guitarists and enthusiasts have the ability to work directly with the designer, to create one-of-a-kind, and unique sounding, guitar for them. The customer picks a base design, and then works with the designer to customise it.

3D printing is not for what you can buy at the store, its for what you cannot buy at the store: the designer, or the design process.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

3D Printing - Disruption or Evolution?

Is 3D printing a disruption, or an evolution? Additive manufacturing experts Econolyst identify six major impact of 3DP on both established companies, and new business start-ups alike. They are:
  1. Economic low volume production - through the elimination of tooling and expensive fixed assets
  2. Increased geometric complexity - through a layer-by-layer, particle-by-particle approach to manufacture
  3. Product personalisation - by coupling economic low volume production with geometric freedom
  4. Improved life-cycle sustainability - through design optimisation, material reduction and product light weighting
  5. New customer experiences - by coupling responsive manufacturing with the internet and retail
  6. Supply chain compression - by enabling manufacture further up the value chain and closer to the consumer/customer
Gartner - the IT industry analysts - track new technologies and have published a 'hype curve' which positions '3D Printing' at the peak of inflated expectations, set for a steep fall. Are they right? There certainly seems to be a lot of hype around. 

Fabbaloo recently commented that they were worried about an explosion of wild posts about 3D printing on a wide variety of blogs that attempt to shock and amaze. They quote headlines such as: 
  • 3D Printer can print entire rooms
  • Automation poses dilemma in labour market
  • 3D Printing spells the end of “Made in China”
  • Will the Guys with the [3D Printed] Guns Make the Rules?
  • 3D Printing Is The New Personal Computing
  • Future of Work: Custom Printed Bodies and the End of the 9-to-5 Job
  • 3D Printing may put global supply chains out of business
Does the Gartner hype cycle only reflect media hype? If so, we need to look to additive manufacturing experts, not IT industry analysts, to inform us of the likely future path for 3D printing. The term itself may be set for a fall in media hype, but the technologies are clearly set for steady and evolutionary impacts in many industries, as the stories in this blog illustrate. 

Today, I would describe the many kinds of 'additive' manufacturing as complementary to the three other classes of making: subtractive (taking material away), fabrication (combination and assembly) and formative (shaping, bending, casting). 3D printing is enriching those processes and because of its immediacy (no need to tool up!) and it is fostering greater collaboration between designers and makers, and between producers and consumers. Where is the disruption? I only enrichment and the emergence of a few genuine new business opportunities. The most prominent of those are companies such as Shapeways, Sculpteo and i-Materialize.

The thing is: no one really knows how quickly 3D printing technology will develop. Today, there are many variations, each incompatible with the other, and the universal 'Star Trek' replicator is a long way off. If an integrated or hybrid printer emerged which could materialize a complete and complex product consisting of many internal subsystems and with embedded electronics, battery and optics, there would indeed be huge savings for manufacturers in terms of labor, storage, handling and distribution. 

There would be no need to bring supply chain partners together physically - digital files for 'parts' could be transmitted over networks. These advantages would then erode today's business case for off-shore production. The months or years to tool up factories would be a thing of the past. Shipping and air cargo volumes would decline. Inventory could be kept ultra-lean via on-shore and near-customer 'on demand' production. Tiers of component suppliers may evaporate. It is even possible that manufacturers would be able to displace retail or distribution and regain 'Shop Window' prominence with their customers or consumers. And just as 3D printers may find a role in Space Exploration, spare parts could be printed as required in the field. 

All of these 'hyped' possibilities depend upon the further development of 3D printing, the integration of additive techniques able to fabricate complete products (and not just prototypes or materially homogeneous objects) and the emergence of more general-purpose machines that could (cost-effectively) be inserted into the value chains of existing product lines. 

This is why experts like Econolyst, and not Gartner, will be in the additive manufacturing consulting business for a long time to come. For while it is possible to create entirely new products using 3D printing such as this 3D printed human foot, no 3D printer can conjure up that idea by itself. The vast majority of 3D printers that are being put to work in the world will be used to enrich production processes associated with existing product lines. 3D printing will be absorbed into those industries as an evolutionary, and not disruptive, force. 

If I am wrong, I promise to eat my own 3D printed hat! But what do you think?

MakerBot's two largest customers? NASA and JPL

It's hard to believe, but MaketBot's Bre Pettis, during a CEO panel at the 3DPrintShow, stated that his top two customers were: NASA #1 and JPL #2. The surprising statement came in response to a question from the floor about the potential of 3D printing in space. What's interesting about this story is that a MakerBot is a low cost, low end, 'hobby' printer. Could MakerBots really be of interest to NASA and JPL?

In elaborating his claim, Bre Pettis alluded to the Apollo 13 mission (and movie) in which the crew - under instruction from ground control - had to improvise makeshift parts in order to reduce dangerous CO2 levels in the cabin.

The story appears to originate from a start up called MadeInSpace who garnered much media interest with their plans to test additive manufacturing in zero gravity. The group - based on the NASA Ames Research Park - believe that 3D printers can be used both in space, and for the manufacture of optimized spacecraft components, such as more efficient rocket nozzles and lighter miniaturized satellite parts. One idea is to reduce the cost of entry to space for entrepreneurs.

Stories of making tools in space go back at least a couple of years to when ZCorp demonstrated on National Geographic TV how a 3D printer could print an adjustable wrench. The video starts with a quote by Dr Mike Massimino, mechanical engineer and astronaut, who said that if we could have a science fiction replicator, any tool needed in space could be designed on the ground, uploaded to the spacecraft, and materialized right there in the cabin!

In another story involving US agencies, DARPA have announced a Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program. It aims to engage high school age students to concoct collaborative design and distributed manufacturing experiments. They envisage deploying up to a thousand 3D printers to schools nationwide. As previously reported, many school Design-Technology departments are already considering or buying 3D Printers. Many view a 3D printer as simply a new tool that sits nicely along side the laser cutter.

One wonders how many different tools NASA imagine may be needed in space? Laser cutters? Desktop milling machines? CNC routers? Vacuum forming? Makes one think: what would the FabLab onboard a mission to Mars look like, and how many tools could a 3D printer replace?

3D Printed Human Feet open way to new generation of orthotic devices

It is said of 3D printing that "Complexity comes for free". This refers to the ability of 3D printers to re-produce any degree of structural complexity, including fine internal structures, just as easily as when printing a far simpler model.

Imagine a human foot. Imagine all of the bones, joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons.  Researches at Glasgow Caledonian University in partnership with Danish biomechanical firm Anybody Technology, have 3D printed a realistic human foot.

I believe this project illustrates a trend: specialized software (in this case musculoskeletal modeling) allowing for the development of domain-specific computer models of complex real world objects, allowing for experiments to be performed digitally (bits), or materialized for real world applications (atoms). 

The computer model of the foot can be used to test a huge range of treatments for common conditions, such as flat feet or foot drop – which prevents recovering stroke patients from moving their ankles and toes upwards.

The foot has an unprecedented level of detail. Using existing 3D printing technology, including printing in multiple materials, the foot can be realized with the required degree of flexibility in each sub-structure.

Using the analytical capabilities of the AnyBody software, orthopaedic device manufacturers, gait lab researchers, and others now have the opportunity to create a new generation of products and services based on a thorough understanding of dynamic foot biomechanics, including effects on the lower leg.

Monday, 22 October 2012

How many 3D printers do I need in my house? From the 3DPrintShow

3D Printing machines may never be as general purpose as the digital computer which can be easily re-programmed via software for any conceivable task or application. This fact drove the revolution in home computing. Enthusiasts and families could confidently buy a home PC in the sure-fire knowledge that it could do almost everything if the required software was available. Even if a package did not exist for their hobby or other need, buyers were reasonably confident that within a few weeks or months, something close to what they wanted would come to market.

This created a self-reinforcing relationship between the sales of computer hardware, and the sales of computer software. New software applications drove sales for more machines. More users with their own computer drove the industry to develop new software. There was a whirlpool of growth that has not been repeated since in any other technological category. It continues today with the rise of 'App' stores, smartphones and tablet devices.

This dynamic is not true of 3D printers (yet) and may never be.

Today's consumer price-point 3D printer is only able to print in plastic and only in a single color at a time. The variety of objects that can be produced this way is limited, as evidenced by a similar look and free of objects displayed at 3D printing maker faires. For this reason, a consumer-led 3D printing revolution may turn out to be very different to the world-changing events that took place in the late 70s and early 80s.

Public awareness of 3D printing is increasing, but there is no home 3D printer revolution (yet).

This reality was on my mind as I visited the 3DPrintShow in London last week. A panel of experts and CEOs of well known 3D printer companies were assembled for a Q&A session. They included Bre Pettis CEO of Makerbot,  Erik de Bruijn open source manufacturing expert and co-founder of Ultimaker and Dr Phil Reeves an additive manufacturing expert and managing director at Econolyst. My question kicked off the panel. It was:

"How many discrete 3D printing technologies are there?
How many 3D printing machines will I therefore need in my house?" 

One panelist quipped that you only needed one printer, theirs! This is not true. Perhaps they were joking. While the 3DP technologies divide into broad categories such as: SLS (selective laser sintering), FDM (fused depostion modeling), SLA (stereolithograhpy), Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) and Selective Laser Melting (SLM), the panel of experts confirmed that (with variations and including the more unusual processes) there could be as many as 25 to 35 different additive manufacturing methods. The panel were unsure of the exact figure.

If the consumer market is looking for a truly universal 3D printer, several very different technologies are going to have to come together. Otherwise the market will be dominated by dedicated printers for niche markets, e.g. Chocolate printers, Pasta printers, Icing printers, Lego block printers, Dolls House accessory printers etc.

As I walked around the exhibition, I discussed this possibility with some of the exhibitors.

One path to a more universally applicable 3DP machine might be exchangeable extruder heads and purpose-built software. Want to print Pasta? Pop in the Pasta-extruder and load up the Pasta design software. Want to print a building for your model railway? Pop in the plastic-extruder and load up your railway layout design software. Need wood? Near wood filament is already available. How about paper or card? Mcor technologies provide a machine that prints gorgeous 3D models with surface color imagery that would be perfect for many hobbies, but there is no extruder to switch in. Mcor's process uses letter/A4 paper, a water-based adhesive and proprietary software.

As I walked around the show, enjoying the creativity on display and observing how people reacted to the exhibits, I was struck by how they divided into two camps: those who were most interested in the printer mechanisms, and those who were more interested in the objects emerging from them. If there is to be a consumer-led 3D printing revolution, I am sure that it will be the applications, and not the machines, in the driving seat.

The road to a single, universal, viable, consumer 3D printer may be a long one:

  • What will a future universal 3D printer look like? 
  • Which of today's additive technologies are compatible, and which are not? 
  • Will new additive approaches emerge to add to, or even supplant, the long roster of today's methods?
  • When will a universal 3D printer emerge that all consumers (not just the 'makers' and enthusiasts) will rush to buy, confident in its ability to support yet unimaginable applications that could be downloaded as easily as a new smartphone 'App'. 

Someone must be working on all this? While hobby printers and the open source 'RepRap' communities get a lot of press, they did not create the 25 year old technologies of additive manufacturing that commoditisation is now allowing them to bring "good enough' alternatives to market at consumer prices. For the Star Trek Replicator, do we need to look to the industrial giants and R&D labs?

Are the latest 3DP acquisitions a clue, or just an example of the industry consolidation after twenty five years of past innovation?

3D printing giant 3D Systems have, over the last few years, developed and acquired many diverse 3D printing platforms and the associated patents. Nothing could be more dissimilar than the technologies at the heart of ZCorp and Objet. Will we see hybrid systems and new patents emerge?

More reports from the 3DPrintShow to follow shortly

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

It's the software stupid! Part 2

We've said this before, but with 3D printing, it's the software stupid!  Software is used at every stage, from design, to materialization. And now, to also manipulate the physical structure and substructures of a 3D digital model, before hitting the 'print' key.

Everyone is familiar with 3D Design packages such as AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Blender, but maybe less so with specialized software that can enrich the design process in ways previously unimaginable.

Our first story focused on a research project in which a specialized software was used to examine the geometry of a model to find suitable bend points in which to add a joint - and then digitally make those modifications - steps which would take a human designer days or even weeks to render. After digital enhancement, 3D printing then allowed the whole model, including its new moving parts, to be materialized all at once.

In a new story, developers at Adobe have been collaborating with researchers at Purdue University to digitally enhance the structure of a 3D model intended for 3D printing, so as to increase strength, and at the same time, reduce weight and quantity of material used.

The research software runs a structural analysis, finds the problematic parts, and then automatically applies a solution. For example, it could increase the thickness of a strut, or it could hollow out unnecessary 'solid' space.  The team claims to have demonstrated a weight/cost saving of 80%.

Such innovations may be necessary if 3D printing is to reach a wide market. The researchers claim that objects created all too easily with 3D printing often fall apart or lose their shape.  “I have an entire zoo of broken 3D printed objects in my office,” says Bedrich Benes, associate professor of computer graphics at Purdue.

In the future, we expect a wide range of 'plug ins' to standard CAD/CAM software to become available. They will enhance our ability to model, and materialize, successful 3D printed objects.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Disney Researchers embedding illumination into 3D Printed Toys

Many 3D Printed objects are homogeneous, either a single plastic extruded by a fused deposition printer, or a single photo-polymer from a stereolithography printer. That's boring.

While ZCorp printers can print in multiple colors the material used is the same for each color.


Objet have taken this further, allowing up to 14 different materials in a single printed object, e.g. one opaque, one transparent, one rigid, one flexible, etc. Beyond these incredible innovations, 3D printed objects remains largely homogeneous in regard to embedded systems, unless you are prepared to assemble multiple parts - which misses the point!


Some experts claim that one day it might be possible to embed electronics, or other subsystems, in a 3D printed object. We are not there yet

Innovation in the 3D printing space knows no bounds.

Disney is researching how to embed illumination within 3D printed toys, using light pipes down to micron thickness and which can be made to glow in controlled ways. Imagine this: figures with glowing eyes, chess pieces that tell about their position or blocks of plastic that show explosions when light is shone at them.

Disney are envisioning a future world where interactive toys can be printed rather than assembled.

The Disney team used a series of these pipes to funnel light up from the base of a toy demon into its eyes. Engineers could control which bits of the eyes were illuminated in a specific colour, to make the toy appear as if it was rolling its eyeballs, blinking, or showing two small throbbing hearts.

Watch a video of these amazing innovations here:

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Public awareness of 3D Printing increasing rapidly, but no home 3D printer revolution yet

Public awareness of 3D printing is increasing rapidly. It is only a couple of years since 3D printing hit the front page of The Economist with a story about a 3D printed Stradivarius. A year later, Forbes asked whether 3D printing could revive US manufacturing? These stories and others like them, triggered interest from the mainstream media.

In a recent story by BBC News Magazine, the work of designer Scott Summit and his startup BespokeInnovations was featured in glorious high resolution color photographs. That's usually a sign that a technology may be about to cross the chasm and a much wider public consciousness.

3D printed prosthetic leg fairing
There are parallels with the emergence of the home computer but, as we will see, key differences.

In the late 70s, as the idea of the 'home computer' successfully transferred from the 'enthusiast' market to the mainstream, the focus quickly turned from the 'gadget' to the software applications. The future, as Bill Gates realized, lay in software. Are 3D printers following the same path?

It is no surprise that the BBC story surrounding Scott Summit focussed on something anyone can understand ... not Fused Deposition Modelling, .STL files and G-code ... but the possibility of using the new technology to produce unique 'fairings' to cover and surround existing prosthetic legs. These custom-made products help the wearer return lost contour and at the same time express their personality. The BBC story of this innovation hardly mentioned the 3D printer! We don't know what make it was, nor the technology involved. The media story was all about the application and the human drama.

Recently, MakerBot, the leading provider of hobby 3D printers moved out of the 'kit' market and has decided to focus instead on assembled "Replicator-2" 3D printers for a broader market. This move is also a signal of the trend to greater public awareness for 3D printing, but some are hoping that founder Bre Prettis and his team will also support the huge appetite for parts and kits from the burgeoning Maker communities.

The question is this: Is the scale consumer market for 3D printers those who want a simple reliable device in order to print "stuff", over and over again, or is it the wider and more diverse maker community who are weaving 3D printing into their projects and who are also motivated to boot themselves a 3D printing capability at home via parts, kits and … 3D printing itself. It’s a question of market maturity.

The majority of stories that will grab the public's imagination over the next few years will not be those which can be replicated on a home 3D printer or even via a consumer 3D print bureau such as ShapeWays. The earliest personal computers could run a huge range of quite entertaining software games, pastimes and 'business' applications. New software packages were being released all the time. This both refreshed the appetite for others to buy  a computer, and increased use of the new gadget in the home. The home computer was infinitely more universal than today's 3D printers.

If a consumer-led revolution in 3D printing is coming, its going to be a slower burn. As example: take a look at a state of the art, highly affordable, stereolithography 3D printer, such as the FORM-1. It's very nature (high resolution 3D forms in single-color polymer) pin it down as a near perfect tool for professional 3D designers, but not for consumers. Having amused themselves with its novelty for a few weeks, Joe Public would quickly run of ideas to print.

There is no doubt that public awareness of 3D printing is increasing rapidly, but it is mainly the result of stories about industrial, not consumer, 3D prints. This means that the situation today with 3D printing today is very different from the early years of home computing.
3D printed prosthetic leg fairing 

We stand at an important juncture for 3D printing in consumer markets, and if anyone tells you they know how it is going to turn out, they are probably wrong.

Think about this: can a 3D printing @ home ever be as general purpose as the home computer? Perhaps direct digital manufacturing will remain the preserve of advanced manufacturing firms such as Telsa. Founded by a group of silicon valley investors including Elon Musk, also the founder of Paypal, Telsa use advanced manufacturing techniques to produce the next generation of electric cars.

As this video shows the Telsa Factory is dominated by re-programmable and re-purposable robots. Some claim the factory that Must and his team have built is one of the most advanced in the world. It happens to make electric cars, but it could make almost anything. One type of build-robot employed is provided by KUKA. With six degrees of freedom, they can be re-programmed for almost any task, and a single robot may do many different tasks in a day,  from moving parts around the factory, to metal bending, to assembly, to painting.

The fact that an electric car is simpler than its combustion engine equivalent, coupled to advanced manufacturing, allows Telsa to push customization to the limits for each client. They achieve this by combining re-programmable robotics with other re-purposeable   tools such as advanced laser cutters and CNC machines. Even without 3D 'additive' printers on the Telsa factory floor, the ability of robotic 'subtractive' manufacturing is impressive. Take a look at this video from Daishin Seiki Corporation of a robot cutting a motor cyclists' helmet out of a block of solid aluminium.

The founders of Telsa are no doubt considering the role of 3D printing at the Telsa Factory. Perhaps they will bring in mammoth stereolithography able to produce panels and parts over two meters in length.

As 3D printing is adopted by Telsa and within other advanced direct digital manufacturing sites, the complex, multi-material, composite objects to emerge, with their embedded subsystems, electrics and electronics, will make the average home 3D printer look like a toy!

There is a tangible sense in which home 3D printers may always remain a pale shadow of what is possible in industry. Only time will tell.

Once again, compare this with computing: Today's cloud computing services such as Google, Amazon Web Services and Rackspace are built from the same components (x86 architecture, commodity PC hardware) as your personal laptop, the only difference between one of scale. The computers you have at home are able to run the same software as any Web service or supercomputer. Your laptop is therefore a far more general purpose device then any 3D Printer available, no matter how advanced. This is because a computer operates only in the realm of bits, not atoms. And this is why any consumer-led 3D printing revolution may turn out to be very different to the world-changing events that took place in the late 70s and early 80s.