As hardware developers, we intensely follow every bit of news coming out of hardware startup incubator Build at Bolt, and we wanted to respond to their blog post about the hype surrounding 3d printing technology. We agree that a lot of the hype, such as instant, on demand, tooling free manufacturing, and Star Trek like "replicators," is a little far fetched. Then they go on to say the following:
"3D printers are amazing, just not for the reasons people usually point to. It’s not about materials or manufacturing or speed. These things are helpful, but not revolutionary. It’s all about inspiration. More than any other accessible tool I’m aware of, 3D printers 'wow' young and old minds alike. They spark creativity. They convince kids to tinker and explore. They let imaginations run wild. They are right now inspiring a new generation of engineers and designers and will create fields that don’t yet exist."We think they missed the point. We believe that cheap printers are revolutionary because they enable the "two guys and a garage" business model.
Additive manufacturing technology really has come a long way from the $1M+ systems of 20 years ago to the sub $2,000 hobby systems of today. With the fall in price came a lot of hype that 3d printing would make conventional manufacturing processes obsolete and banks of 3d printers would replace rows of presses and milling machines and the like. For a number of reasons, such as scalability, material choices, part strength, and quality of surface finish, this just isn't going to happen, much like regular 2d desktop printers didn't end the sale of paperback books. (Although, we'd be remiss if we didn't say there was a niche for 3d printers making low volume, high end designer, or hard to find parts).
What the revolution is all about is what it brings to the design process. Just as software developers adhere to a philosophy of rapid iterations and testing, hardware developers like to do the same. Even with the power of modern 3d CAD modeling, there's still no substitute for actually fit checking parts, testing their ergonomics, and holding them in your hand, it's just that it used to be prohibitively expensive for small hardware developers to do so.
With traditional prototyping processes, raw material isn't cheap, the cost of labor for a highly skilled sculptor or machinist can be daunting, and the iteration time is measured in days, if not weeks. With sub $2,000 printer systems, raw material costs around $20/lb, and no need for a skilled operator, completely changes the game. We're embracing this development process to the fullest.
When crowdfunding is added to the mix, cheap 3d printing can realize it's full potential as a disruptive technology. Small companies can now afford to go through multiple iterations of a concept to develop a product before turning to crowdfunding to raise the capital required to invest in production tooling. What was once was only within the reach of only well funded firms is now available to anyone with 3d CAD modeling skills and vision.
At Awkward Engineer Creations, with one engineer and a marketing guy, we are taking full advantage of the technology available to us. With a $600 Solidoodle printer in the back room of the apartment (we don't even have a garage), we can go from concept sketch, to CAD model, to part in hand, in less than 24 hours. We've already been through multiple iterations of our Cookie Dunking Cup, and we plan on Kickstarting it soon.