Fused Deposition Modeling still reigns supreme in the desktop fabrication market. While FDM continues to expand in function, flexibility, and filament variety, there’s still an adoption gap – a disconnect that needs to be solved if 3D printers are to invade every household.
The first iteration of desktop 3D printing was primarily “hobbyist” level and involved serious time, problem solving, and patience. As maker communities gathered and the RepRap movement rose, an open source design initiative helped spark the desktop 3D printing revolution.
The next iteration began when units such as the Makerbot Replicator 2, Cube, Ultimaker, and PrintrBOT began to take hold. Although these printers (and others) succeeded in wooing early adopters, the broader market remained apprehensive. Word spread about long or failed prints, troubleshooting issues, and accompanying frustration. Some are still hesitant to adopt 3D printers owing to the “problem solving” stigma. Why don’t the printers “just work?”
The current iteration is at a crossroads. How can companies make desktop additive manufacturing (using FDM) as easy to operate as a microwave? All things being equal, we know that a moving nozzle spewing hot plastic layer by layer can only be so accurate, so fast, or so dependable. Assuming FDM continues its pace for the home or small office market (considering other technologies such as SLA and SLS are steadily lowering in cost and becoming easier to use) there’s still plenty of room for innovation.
I’ve identified a number of features that I believe will help win over dubious potential buyers. The aim is to move away from the hobbyist mentality and focus on fail-safe features, productivity, and ease of use. You have to prove to households there is a net gain in productivity when using a 3D printer.
In order to move away from the stigma of 3D printing as merely a “fun project,” speed should be top priority. If you want consumers to consider it a household necessity, reduce the print time. Faster print times mean better productivity at home and an appreciation for quickly fabricating objects instead of having to buy them.
Automated build plate leveling
A leveled build plate is the cornerstone for successful 3D prints and a common denominator for print failure. The traditional technique of measuring plate-to-nozzle distance using a sheet of torn paper has to end. While manual leveling may be easier for some, it’s tedious or frustrating for others. Swedish manufacturer Zyyx may already have the answer. Their unit includes a probe attached to the nozzle assembly. Before printing begins, the surface-compensating leveling system engages and eliminates the need for manual plate adjustments. The probe positions itself at each corner of the plate, adjusting the print plane automatically.
Scalable build volumes
Once you purchase a 3D printer on the market today, you’re bound to an exact build volume. A scalable 3D printer that utilizes multiple volume sizes will help consumers see the utilitarian value in their purchase. It also opens the door for additional revenue from value added products such as expansion kits. From 3D printing small toys to large closet shelving units, marketers can increase the focus on their brand’s “at-home” or DIY capabilities.
Multi-function printer systems
Some companies are designing several Cartesian-based manufacturing processes into one platform, combining 3D printing, milling, laser engraving, cutting, or 3D scanning. FABTotum and Piranha FX offer “multi-purpose personal fabrication devices” that may help shoe-in “The Jetsons” age for households.
Smart extrusion technology
For Makerbot’s 5th generation series, a new swappable extruder unit was designed for easy maintenance and troubleshooting – especially for less technical audiences or those who aren’t interested in the “tinkering” aspects of 3D printing. As a completely enclosed and modular unit, there’s no need for part-by-part disassembly. It allows for both quick replacement and easy upgrades in the future. Makerbot and Zyyx printers incorporate filament sensing capabilities that pause the printer in the event of clogs or feeding issues. Zyxx has also added detection features that sense warping, curling, or loose objects during printing.
Predictive slicers and virtual reality
When a digital model is sent to 3D printing software, it’s converted into a set of instructions (known as G-code) that a 3D printer will understand and follow. Otherwise known as “slicing software”, it’s available in either proprietary or open source formats and an array of print settings. Household friendly 3D printing software requires additional simplification and predictive capabilities. While a “fix everything button” would be really cool, we all know it’s not that simple.
Visualizing a model in the digital world helps anticipate how the physical object will look once 3D printed. As virtual reality becomes more attainable for the home user, so will the ability to study a 3D model in a digital environment. VR allows modelers and designers to test, live, and experience their design from alternate points of view. Swiss startup theConstruct provides a new perspective in 3D modeling and 3D printing by allowing users to work with their models in a virtual setting before hitting the print button.
Non-proprietary filament cartridges
Filament cartridges with proprietary designs or “smart sensors” are more trouble than they’re worth and drive away the households they’re targeting. Allowing consumers to price shop their filament without being bound to one manufacturer’s proprietary design is vital and economically sound. Proprietary cartridges add complexity where it’s not necessary and potential for additional failure. It also gives budget conscious buyers bad vibes.
Easier general maintenance
If a general degree of maintenance is still required for a 3D printer, especially if a consumer has to work with technical support, easier troubleshooting ergonomics will help keep things calm. From color-coded controller board wiring to easy timing belt calibration, the maintenance process needs to be as simple as setting up your stereo or computer via plug and play. The goal should be to make the repairs or replacements for common issues as easy as building Ikea furniture or replacing your computer’s DVD drive. Tighter support integration between the printer, its ergonomics, and customer service will induce buyer confidence and may even get buyers hooked on DIY upgrades down the road.
Core performance before cool widgets
Focus on the productivity and utility a new consumer wishes to have with their 3D printer. When asked what they want, buyers will most likely say: “I just want it to print when I tell it to.” They’re less likely to say “I want it to print while I watch it happen over the internet via my printer’s built in Wi-Fi using a tablet app”. If the printer is providing a problematic core experience, getting Wi-Fi to work will be the last problem on their mind. LCD displays and webcams are necessary and useful, but it’s not what they bought it for. The finished physical 3D printed model, as well as the seamless experience to create it, is what the home market is searching for.
Moving toward a 3D printed future for households
Whether for engineers or not, friendlier and more proactive design features are essential to capturing the attention of the “not sure if I should wait until the technology gets better” audience. When 3D printing is mentioned, you’ll most likely hear “I saw it on the news, it’s amazing!” What you should hear is “my neighbor 3D printed me a garden hose attachment at the press of a button, I’ve got to get myself a Makerbot!” It should be as socially normal to 3D print an object as it would be to recycle one. To win consumer hearts and minds, we’ll need to push the boundaries in usability that rivals any home appliance.