How is the future of 3D printing shaped by major corporations?

Unless you have been living on the dark side of the moon for the last 5 years, you probably know about the emergence of affordable 3D Printing. An early device to weigh in was actually developed just down the road from us at Bath University. The RepRap project was born out of a philosophy paper – the idea surrounding a machine that helps to build its progeny. RepRap was designed out of 3d printed parts, hence the device could produce “offspring”.

Significantly RepRap was a not for profit and open source movement, which has to be a significant factor in the explosion of the 3D printing enthusiast community, just run the term “3D printing” through Google Trends and you can see the explosion around 2011. We then saw many devices spring up as commercial start ups, apparently very much based on the RepRap, in particular the majority are based on “Fused Deposition Modelling”  ( Imagine an inkjet printer that extrudes a tiny stream of hot plastic over a platform that drops away, as the part builds up the layers.)

Globally machines just about within reach of the consumer began to emerge, which clearly caught the eye of the established industrial rapid prototype machine sector. In 2010, Bits From Bytes, a Bristol based 3D print machine maker, were bought out by 3D Systems Corp,  at a recent check of their website no longer appear to sell their own machine. Then 3D Systems Corp hit the headlines again when they sued Formlabs and Kickstarter, regarding a low priced, high specification 3D printer, that used photo-active polymer ( similar to Stereolithography; picture a bath of resin solidified by a scanning UV laser, to build up the part ) While the future for the Formlabs device hung in the balance for a year, it now transpires the parties settled the dispute and will now be shipping the Form1, Hi Res SLA type machine this year, we would love to test drive one of these machines developed by their MIT founders.

In June this year another large corporation from the industrial prototyping sector, Stratsys, acquired one of the grass roots, 3D Desktop printing leaders, Makerbot. Stratsys, most well known for Objet machines has already joined forces with Hewlet Packard, to tackle this market with mixed success, In their acquisition of Makerbot paid over $400M including its network Thingyverse, which looks like a good investment at the time of writing. Makerbot have forged a really interesting brand proposition incorporating Thingiverse, the user community platform for model sharing and sale of designs, they have achieved this and yet remained true to their grass roots “Hackspace” oriented following.

On our travels we have seen mixed feelings in the Desktop 3D printing community regarding these type of acquisitions, the perception has often been that the larger corporations are attempting to close off a threat to their core business, rather then a genuine incentive to diversify. In fact some of the language used on forums, has made analogies to Star-trek, “being assimilated by the Borg”. It’s really interesting to see a tangible sense of ownership by the community and a palpable distrust of commercial interest in the burgeoning market. After all it has been started by the enthusiast for the enthusiast. It raises some conflicting issues, particularly where you see buy outs which effectively remove or derail some of the exciting low cost printers.

There is a lot of hyperbole surrounding an industrial revolution brought about by 3D printing, just take a look at TED talks on the subject. Surely its in the wider interest that 3D printers for the home and office progress to a lower cost higher quality proposition, only with that infrastructure in place will the many exciting ventures surrounding empowering consumers to customize their wares, ideas such as Lisa Harouni’s Digital Forming, for example, really have a large enough consumer base to take hold. Surely the analogy is Microsoft in the mid 1990’s with their mission to put a PC in every home. That shaped the world, especially the web we know today. We wonder if its possible for larger corporation to share the same goal as the original 3D printer movement, such we see a similar revolution. Core77 posted a nice article on this recently, which you can read here.

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