MakerBot, the 3D Printing Revolution, a Saab Cup Holder, and Me

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MakerBot, the 3D Printing Revolution, a Saab Cup Holder, and Me

You wouldn’t think a used Saab 93 would make you dive so deeply into 3D printing.

It happened last week when I was testing a MakerBot Replicator Mini. I’ve been enamored by the burgeoning maker industry for several years, but this was my first time going hands-on for an extended period of time. Darth Vader statue printed in four hours and painted black, check. Multiple keychains generated for friends and family, no problem.

Then I got down to business. I wanted to print a replacement for a missing cup-holder. If you know anything about the fine folks from Trollhättan in Sweden, they are rather meticulous. The Saab cup holder slides out from a slot in the dash using a spring. It’s not terribly complex, but it has a few parts that work together and, for coffee drinkers, that’s a big bonus. Sadly, it’s also not actually there. My goal was to design the parts and print them out.

This is not a Herculean task, thanks to the advent of 3D printing. You add some filament (aka, plastic), load your design, press a few buttons, and watch as your glorious creation appears layer by layer inside a glass box. If Captain Picard announced “make it so” over in the corner and an angelic choir appeared amid glowing lights, you would not be surprised.

3D printing is one of those magical activities you’ve probably heard about and maybe even seen in person, but it has stayed in the dark underworld of small factories, prototyping shops, and the pop-up manufacturing field. It tends to be a little techie. Jimmy up the street doesn’t have a 3D printer yet, and that presents a huge problem for the champions of this upstart industry. My theory is that, it’s only when your Aunt Judy thinks it’s a good idea to buy the product that you have finally gone mainstream and will take over the world with your product.

That’s what happened when laser printers first came into existence. Apple released the LaserWriter in 1985 and suddenly everyone became a graphic artist overnight. Well, not quite everyone. They were bulky and expensive, but not exactly prevalent at first. Today, almost everyone has some sort of printer at home and in the office. (Feel free to lament this fact, because paper is slowly dying out and being replaced by the cloud.)

What will it take before Jimmy has one? My cup holder is an excellent example of the current state of 3D printing. It’s not quite possible, but it will be soon.

The problem is that there isn’t an easy to way to create the design. Sabb doesn’t really exist in its same form, and they’re probably not that interested in releasing the design of a 2004 car interior part. Makers have told me they don’t have a way to create the part because it uses a spring and a few other components that need to be attached to each other. And, 3D printing experts are quick to point out some of the challenges of mainstream adoption.

One of those experts is Terry Wohlers, the principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates. He ran through a quick litany of incredible items being printed these days. Human body parts, cranial implants, dental crowns, flash drives, eyeglass frames — you name it there is a maker making it. Gold pendants, printed using actual gold. We’re obviously in that heady period of anything goes, from dresses to entire cars to food.

Wohlers told me even Boeing and Airbus are printing out airplane parts. That’s a little scary but also amazingly cool, because even the giants are using this tech.

“Thousands of products are being designed, 3D-printed, and sold to consumers around the world,” he explained. “The biggest consumer market opportunity, by far, is 3D-printed products that are purchased online and at shops. We do not see a large market for low-cost 3D printers in the home, with the idea being that consumers will print their own products.”

To give that some context: The Saab part is not easy to design, and might not ever see the light of day. Jewelry, iPhone cases, toy figures that remind you of Kylo Ren (but are not actually Kylo Ren), and other mass market parts meant to attract a wide audience are more common today. That’s almost exactly like the laser printing era. The truth is, not everyone who bought a laser printer was a graphic designer. It’s a little more complicated than that. You need training in design, high-end apps like Photoshop and Illustrator, and some business sense.

“Good product design comes from experienced and talented designers and engineers,” says Wohlers. “It’s not trivial to design a functional, good-looking, safe, and quality product. Also, manufacturing products by 3D printing is not easy. Some of the limitations are material type, color, surface finish, size, speed, cost, and postprocessing.”

“With 3D, we are where the personal computer was in the mid-to-late 1970s,” adds Michael Nadeau, a Senior Market Analyst at Actionable Intelligence. “Then, the machines were temperamental, required a great deal of skill to use, and had few professionally produced applications. Yet some consumers were intrigued enough to buy them and invest the effort needed to learn how to use them productively. That’s where 3D printing is now—some consumers see the promise of the technology and are brave enough to experiment.”

The analysts are right, and 3D printing will stay in the maker lab for a while, but that could shift eventually. I realized this when I used Thingiverse recently, looking for Saab parts. The site is owned by MakerBot and it’s incredibly easy to find a design among thousands and generate that part overnight. Someone is going to make my Saab part eventually. Maybe it’s even someone reading this right now. I found parts for other cars, including a Volvo cap for a dipstick.

What impresses me most about 3D printing is that there are few boundaries. Let’s say you do spend $899 on the Replicator Mini. You have opened up new worlds unto yourself. One minute you are sitting on the sofa watching an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, the next you are making up your own disc design and printing it. On your morning commute, you might decide to design your own coffee mug or a new license plate holder. I’d say 3D printing has even more potential than home-brew computing and laser printing because this is a field that is all about inventing any physical object and then having it appear right before your eyes.

Cut to the angelic choir. This is a market that will only grow and blossom. The great thing? Most of the potential rests in the hands of that kid up the street who doesn’t even know it yet.