When I began working with 3D technologies in 2003, the largest barrier to widespread usage was producing the 3D files used to make a 3D print. Although, 3D printers are now widely available, the fact that tiny minorities of users are fluent in 3D modeling programs continues to be the greatest hurdle to the universal adoption of the technology. The new emerging 3D technologies listed below, however, I believe, will finally rectify this and so integrate 3D printing into every day life.
3D Scanning: Our World of Physical Permanence Becoming Impermanent
Generally, the speed at which the public adopts a new technology is connected to its ease of use. Before the simple-to-use Brownie camera, the ability to produce images was the sole territory of those who could master painting or the complicated technology of cumbersome cameras, glass plates, diverse printing processes and media. Because Kodak simplified the technology of photography, we now live an image-saturated world, where picture making and manipulation is commonplace.
Emerging hand-held 3D scanners have the potential to be the Brownie of 3D technology. Instead of needing to know 3D design software to create a 3D file from scratch, the user just points and sweeps the surface of an object. Sweeping the scanner across the surface creates a “Point Cloud” — or millions of points of reference — which then are translated into a "mesh” of the 3D surface and ultimately generate a digital 3D file.
For the most part, however, 3D scanning's strengths are different from photography in the way painting differs from sculpture. A painting or photograph easily captures huge vistas and landscapes, whereas observational sculpture and 3D scanners capture every detail of an object. Think of it this way: A camera may record moments from a wedding, while the 3D scanner is more adept at creating the wedding gift.
Easy-to-use 3D scanning means we are entering a new age of object plasticity and malleability. This is huge, as the historically human experience of the physical world is usually one of object permanence. Soon, we will need to reconfigure how we think about ourselves and other items as pieces of the physical world that can be captured, morphed, traded, re-contextualized and sold.
But what will be done with 3D scans once they become simple to make? Newly emerging mass-personalization software will make it easy to transform 3D scans into new unique objects. Using a 3D Scanner, one could scan a vase to give as a wedding gift. Then using simple mass-personalization software, make changes to the 3D file, and 3D print the new vase to give to the happy couple.
Creating software that allows fluid mass-personalization is a challenge; but more importantly, even if it exists, will people be comfortable using it? Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of us are not makers. While we are all inherently creative, our creativity, as applied to physical things, has atrophied along with the faith in our abilities. The largest challenge to new mass-personalization software is that it must empower the user, helping them believe in their personal creativity.
Desktop 3D Printer vs. 3DP Hubs vs. Large-Scale 3DP Fulfillment Service
One question facing 3D technology is: “Will everyone eventually own a 3D printer?”
To answer this, let's revisit the photography analogy.
In the 1990s, digital photography was paired with the desktop inkjet printer, dooming Fotomat and Polaroid, by making the entire photographic process inexpensive and easy. One school of thought believes that, thanks to simple mass-personalization software, a 3D printer will eventually sit alongside the 2D printer.
I don't believe this will be so, however, because 2D printing basically makes two things: black and white and color images. The printed 3D world, on the other hand, exists as millions of “formats” or materials. In order to make a desktop 3D printer as viable, it would need to print not in two formats but in millions — while sitting neatly on our desk.
Because plastics are very useful, many of us will have plastic printers at home, meaning a steady rise in desktop 3D printing sales. And over the next 12 to 18 months, as multi-material and multi-color plastics enter the marketplace, personal printer sales will grow.
But over the next five to 10 years, most people will get their 3D prints made at ironically what amounts to a 3D Fotomat. These prints will be made at either a local neighborhood makerspace hub, or by emailing our 3D files to a 3D printing fulfillment services and having our wedding vases mailed back.
By 2015, everyone will own or use — whether they know it or not — 3D technologies
Interestingly, the vast majority of us will unknowingly either own or use a 3D printer far before we intentionally do so. Because 3D technologies have shown huge potential in cost savings through efficiencies of manufacture, it has embedded itself into large-scale industrial manufacturing. This has resulted in products that have been prototyped or ever increasingly sold with 3D prints inside them.
Although we are physical beings who live in volumetric space, most of us have very little control over the third dimension. The new 3D technologies are changing that. And, for better or worse, we will soon all have more of a voice in our physical world.