Despite all the hype, 3D printing is still the preserve of specialist companies and committed enthusiasts with deep pockets. At least, for now. That could be about to change, though, as two consumer IT giants look to bring 3D printing to a wider audience.
Are we on the verge of a “revolution in manufacturing” that will “change the way we live our lives forever”? Will 3D printers ever be as widespread as laser printers are now? Maybe not but we seem to inching closer all the time.
If you want to create a 3D printer for the mass market, it needs to be easy to use – not something you can say about the devices currently available. Some specialist knowledge is required to upload a 3D design and use it to create a useful and recognisable end product. Not to mention the amount of time required to print even a small object and the fact that most will need to be finished by hand.
Microsoft is looking to solve the usability issue with its 3D Builder app, which was included in the latest Windows 8 update. 3D Builder allows you to import designs, or select one from its pre-programmed library, and make minor modifications. Once you’ve finished tinkering, you can send the design to a compatible 3D printer to be printed.
Currently, that means that you’ll need a MakerBot Replicator 2, which costs a hefty $2100. 3D Builder’s limited functionality and basic interface are at odds with the Replicator 2’s price tag, which would discourage most “casual” users. Factor in the requirement for Windows 8.1 and 3D Builder’s potential market is restricted to say the least.
Undoubtedly, Microsoft will improve upon 3D Builder and users will eventually be able to create more sophisticated and customisable designs with relative ease. By then, perhaps, it will be possible to print your 3D designs on an HP printer. HP is the first mainstream printer manufacturer to enter the 3D printing market and is expected to launch its first product in mid-2014.
CEO Meg Whitman has announced that HP will develop its own 3D printing technology, with a brief to make it cheaper, faster and more practical. Details are scarce but Whitman stated that HP’s 3D printers would be a “new technology”. HP’s commitment to developing its own products indicates that it’s taking 3D printing seriously. However, there are some stiff challenges to overcome if it’s to create products with mass appeal.
If HP can produce a machine that’s affordable and easy to use with consumables that don’t break the bank, it could be a huge success. However, with so few details to go on, it’s difficult to say just how likely that it. It seems like we’ll just have to wait and see.
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by Anthony Morgan