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3D’s Not ready to come home yet

Do you print your own books? Most of us have a printer at home, but we’re not doing that much with them these days. Sharing GIFs on Facebook has likely taken attention away from home printing. Somehow, though, despite more than a decade of predictions of its demise, the printing industry is doing just fine and our mail boxes are still filled with flyers and post cards promoting groceries and vacation rentals. Home printing turns out not to be an occasional need, but centralized industrial printing has stayed as steady as ever.

Meanwhile, 3D printing is all the rage in business media. In the latest bombshell, Stratasys, one of the leading manufacturers of rapid 3D printers for rapid prototyping just purchased MakerBot, the leading manufacturer of DIY 3D printers for hobbyists. 3D is tough to do at home. If you’re not a CAD specialist, you’ll need some sort of 3D scanner. Recently PrimeSense, the technology behind Microsoft’s Kinect, was kicked out of Microsoft’s latest Xbox in favor of a time-of-flight technology, but neither Xbox camera offers much resolution, after all, they’re for gesture recognition, not 3D scanning. While 3D scanning technology has been around for a while, most of the high-end systems cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, there are companies like Chiaro Technologies, a Boulder-based startup developing 3D capture technology that might cost a bit more than Kinect, but offers an order of magnitude more resolution and accuracy, just what would be micro-manufacturers using 3D printers will need.

It sounds attractive, exciting, even intuitive that everyone would like to print 3D objects at home. It’s too bad that as great as it is to have a MakerBot in your garage, it really can’t do much and each print isn’t cheap. Each 3D printer is optimized for a different material and procedure, but in the real world, objects are made out of combination of materials. Making things with your 3D printer is far from point and click today. You need to get the data, either by modeling or scanning, then massage it to fit the printer you’re working with.

These challenges haven’t scared investors, who are surely excited that Stratasys acquired MakerBot. It justifies a great deal of investment in other 3D businesses. Yet, maybe 3D printing isn’t ready to take home. One company might have the right idea and that’s Shapeways. Shapeways has a manufacturing plant with dozens of different rapid prototyping machines. They have 3D Systems machines and Stratasys too. They probably have a few MakerBots! They also have a rather fun website where designers can submit 3D model designs and others can buy them, quantity one, shipped right to their door. It’s custom manufacturing brought to the smallest quantities, and you didn’t have to learn how to use the 3D printer yourself!

We don’t print books at home but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to print things. If home printer use has slacked, “How much,” Shapeways must have thought, “are you likely to use a 3D printer that does much less, costs much more and is much harder to use?” So they’ve capitalized on the 3D printing excitement by offering something all of us can take part in with very little friction at all.

Which brings me to 3D scanners. Everyone with an Xbox and Kinect has a 3D scanner already (and many are, indeed, using these with their 3D printers). Anybody with a camera, a bit of skill, and an Autodesk account can upload stereo images and download 3D data from the cloud. Neither have nearly the accuracy or resolution to really make much.

Kinect may soon be everywhere, but useful 3D scanning will likely wind up in your corner hobby store before being simple and inexpensive enough to take home with you. Even today you can walk into stores like Direct Dimensions and have your face scanned for your very own avatar. Real DIYer’s need enough accuracy to ensure that their new bike-grip-phone-holder fits all the parts the way it should, and for that they need a 3D scanner designed for 3D capture not gesture recognition. Companies like Chiaro are developing scanners that are inexpensive enough to be hosted anywhere, without sacrificing quality, even if they aren’t quite small enough to fit in your cellphone and take home with you yet. Together, scanners and printers will allow us to make amazing customized things. What remains to be seen is whether or not it’s something we need to do in the garage or whether we can just send the file out and get our new custom gadget in next day’s mail. Sounds like a good start.

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