Companies across the manufacturing sphere are preparing for the 3D printing revolution, as are consumers and end users. Following that trend, consumer-grade and commercial-grade 3D printers are becoming more available. We've talked about these before, and discussed some of their benefits, including hyper-local manufacturing and extended product lifecycles. But for all the benefits -- and there are benefits -- concerns remain.

The devil, they say, is in the details. 

The biggest concern with 3D printers is the availability of good, relevant files to print. Using a replacement part as an example, if you want to use a 3D printer to produce a replacement gasket for a pump, you're not going to be able to unless the pump company puts out a 3D design file for that gasket. Relying on the manufacturer here is not an optimal solution: they are out to make as much money as possible, meaning they would rather sell you a replacement part at considerable markup or an entire new pump under the doctrine of planned obsolescence. If manufacturers plan to offer printable files, expect them to be behind significant paywalls and likely riddled with use-limiting DRM. 

Taking away the manufacturer, you'll be looking at the two remaining options for the printable design file: third-party repositories or designing the part in-house. Let's look at repositories first. The initial efforts for repositories are pretty limited at the time -- keeping in mind it is very virgin territory, even for hobbyists -- but they do exist in the form of sites like MakerBot's Thingiverse. As these environments grow and become established, some sticking points will include:
  • Design sources - Will these be community endeavors with crowd-sourced designs, or will there be businesses designed around providing print designs?
  • Product diversity - Will the designs encompass all the products on the market, or only the popular/high profit areas? Relating back to the earlier example, will you be able to actually print the gasket needed for your pump that only sold 4,000 units, or will the market be flooded with iPhone case designs?
  • Dominant material/file format - With any burgeoning technology, there are multiple formats in the space fighting for market share. Printers each accept a different file format, use differing materials, and have different levels of resolution and size capability. We are witnessing another HD-DVD v. Blu-ray, or VHS v. Betamax battle. The dust has to settle before significant investment will be seen.
Should the third-party repository not work out for you -- you and your super-rare pump gasket -- the last resort seems to be designing it yourself. While some companies might actually have, or be able to afford, the necessary resources to properly produce these items in-house. Who knows, the future may see a day when mechanic/maintenance teams include a SolidWorks guy. The more likely scenario is one that's being pursued by a number of technologies today: 3D scanning of existing options. Machines capable of scanning in three dimensions technically exist already, but they're expensive.

Making the process more mass-market friendly are MakerBot, who are documenting their scanning processes as they develop the Digitizer, a sort of high-tech lazy susan with two lasers. You can document their progress here, but the tl;dr version is: resolution is still a bit grainy/bubbly. Another promising technology is producing better results, at least early on, while using more low-key technology. This development project uses double-lens "depth cameras" and the Internet to properly scan existing objects. 

While 3D printing is getting closer and closer to mainstream each day, it seems, the production of 3D printable designs is a bit further off. What do you think will be the better strategy: encouraging the training of designers that can prototype quickly or furthering the development of 3D scanners?
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Nicholas Hamner

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