Expanding The 3D Printing Ecosystem

Now shit’s constantly hot, on my block, it never fails to be gunshots

-2Pac (My Bloc)

Last week I wrote about how startups wanting to leverage 3D printing to attack existing markets need to think about the technology. This week, it seems reasonable to start talking about the ecosystem developing around the entire 3D market. The support structure for creating content and distributing content has been booming and feeds the raw material for the printers.

Creation (Scanning)
3D scanning is currently time-consuming and inaccurate. Scans often fail and certain items don’t scan well, compounding the problem. Small items can be scanned accurately using a $2k desktop scanner in 15 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the resolution. The larger the item the longer the scan takes and the less accurate it becomes. Adding small movements, poor lighting or reflective materials throws the technology off pretty badly. A scan I did of my foot with a detailed desktop scanner took ~15 scans. Each scan took about 3 minutes of me holding my foot still and the resulting 3D model is still not perfect.

Luckily there are some new technologies that leverage Kinects, Leap Motion Controllers and other lower cost 3D sensors to do quicker scans. Arden Reed for instance is using Kinects to do full body scans in just a few seconds.

This technology is absolutely critical to the ecosystem because it enables people with no design skills to get 3D design files (replacement parts for instance). More interesting to me, it allows us to start customizing add-on products to the world around us. You cannot customize something to work with other things unless you know what the other things look like (insoles, clothing, medical devices, jewelry are all relevant examples)

Creation (Digital design)
For years the only way to create 3D models was through cumbersome software that required specific, high-learning-curve, skills. This has limited the power of creation to those super interested in the technology and prevented the power of the crowd to directly drive content creation. This has begun to change, albeit slower than a lot of people would like. On the one hand you have new technology like Sketchup and Tinker CAD which make it easier for people to start designing in 3D. On the other hand you have educational Preston Middle School in colorado which is specifically teaching students to build 3D models and shows them how to print them. Will some future generation be considered the “3D printing natives” and truly democratize the power of creation in whole new ways? Mainstream companies are jumping on the bandwagon and offering custom solutions that leverage 3D printing, like eBay’s Exact app.

Sharing & Distribution of Content
Do any of you remember what we were using to share video and music in the 90s before Youtube and Spotify? It was the Wild West of applications, from Napster to email (and burned CDs). It’s exactly the same today for 3D models. We know that companies like Youtube are incredibly powerful because they are the intermediary by which people consume and share their content. Many companies are trying to solve this problem from a variety of angles. The manufacturing companies, and the outsourced printers, have competing services. Shapeways has a marketplace where every item can be printed and mailed to you, Makerbot has Thingiverse where any item can be downloaded for free. Then you have startups like Sketchfab which is taking a more “utility” approach to the problem by providing a place to host 3D models and rock-solid software that makes viewing the files online fast and pain-free. Previously if you want to view 3D models time-consuming plugins were needed and each file took a lot of time to load. Now you can simply upload your content to Sketchfab and then use their code to embed your file anywhere across the web. Their catalog of 3D models are browsable on their site too, and they’ve got some amazing things in there.

Printing Software
All of the things we just spoke about develop the content pipeline that feed the printers. We’re approaching a point where access to 3D designs and printers is widespread. The content pipeline is set to explode. Another problem that people, like 3D printing manufacturers, are running into is that workflow management software for 3D fabrication facilities blows chunks. The model where you create thousands of unique pieces at the same time is the antithesis of a traditional manufacturing facility. Managing orders, post-production, packing and quality control are all completely different. I’ve not seen a single company with creating this software for sale as their sole purpose. Josh is taking the Parts Press idea in this direction now. It’s an opportunity to be the glue that 3D fabrication facilities run on.

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Expanding The 3D Printing Ecosystem

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