The Future of 3D Fabrication

This week, I attended a meet-up held by Maker Media at their Maker Media Lab in the innovation hangar at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Having been built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International exposition, the Palace housed some of the premier innovations for that time – an early cross-country telephone line and the first steam locomotive to name a couple – and it now hopes to house some of today’s top innovators. Enter Maker Media. They’ve placed a physical lab in the north end of the innovation center to personally engage with their audience, hold events, and showcase new projects.

 

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Yes, that is an ED-209 replica in the corner.

It was at this lab that they held the launch of their 3D Printer and Digital Fabrication Guide. This is Make: magazine’s best-selling issue every year, and for good reason. Very few products represent makers everywhere as well as the 3D printer, and there are droves of new printers and fabricators coming to market every year – each a little smaller, cheaper, or better than the ones before it. Maker Media convened a panel of 3D printing experts to discuss the industry, the difficulties, and the possibilities

 

Crowd funding

One of the main topics of discussion for the panel was crowd funding. Each of the panelists, many of whom were founders and CEOs of digital fab companies, conveyed stories of paralyzing pressure that results from raising money through Kickstarter or IndieGogo. The amount of money raised by each of the panelists varied from $300k to over $800k – and each one of them had the same advice to those looking to deliver through those channels: Have a plan for the money. Asking for more money than you need to deliver on what you say you will is a sure-fire way to overspend and underdeliver. And don’t forget about Kickstarter’s cut…

Most interesting was Dan Shapiro, CEO of Glowforge, who had been able to raise $10.26m dollars traditionally, but kicked off a crowd funding campaign anyhow and netted an additional $27.4m. I like the Glowforge example because it highlights the flexibility of crowd funding to get projects off the ground. You can use a site like Kickstarter to generate pre-orders (especially important for hardware ventures), you can use it to simply validate your ideas, or you could use it to start a Maker revolution

 

Consumers v Makers

A very interesting discussion ensued about who these devices are for. While many of the panelists would describe the entire maker movement as one that puts powerful tools in the homes of consumers, not all agreed on who their target audience is. The very essence of the movement is that it is helping to transform consumers into makers who can then sell their products to other consumers. Sure, everyone’s future vision of this new technology is Star Trek’s replicator – a machine that instantly materializes anything you ask it to out of thin air – transforming everyone into a “maker” of sorts. Until we get there, I imagine there will continue to be a divide in the market between fabricators intended for personal use and those intended for commercial use in the home.

 

What’s next?

So, what is the next cool thing in the world of home fabrication? Initially, there were different answers from each of the panelists – 3D sewing/cutting machines to make it possible to fabricate made-to-order and custom clothes at home and better home CNC*  were two of the more common answers – but all panelists agreed eventually that the future is robotics. Robotic arms that can be programmed in conjunction with 3D printing/milling/cutting tools to further automate the process of fabrication and robots that can handle packaging and assembly of the final product. Essentially, further increasing the divide between the consumer and commercial endeavors.

 

It might not yet be a replicator, but the panelists have made it a long way towards helping consumers become commercially viable makers.

– Sandro, Product Strategist

*CNC: stands for Computer Numerical Control,  a process used in the manufacturing sector that converts the design produced by CAD into numbers to control machine tools