The truth of the matter is, 3D printing is cumbersome. It's difficult, annoying, and unrealistic for non-engineers. The humming MakerBots spitting out mini Yoda heads and brightly colored Cube printers making textured maps at the Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York City last week made it look simple, but that's because engineers and experienced employees were manning them.
If we step back from the bubble of hype surrounding 3D printing, it's obvious there is a gaping hole in this technology: software. What if 3D printing an object was as easy as clicking a dropdown menu, downloading or creating a design, customizing it, and sending it directly to a printer? That's the dream, of course. In its current state, the industry isn't there yet.
In her keynote address at the conference, Christine Furstoss, global technology director for GE, discussed this missing link as the industry's biggest obstacle, but also its biggest opportunity.
"It truly is a time for hardware meets software, a time to embrace and bring forward a whole new class of innovators," Furstoss said.
If the gap between hardware and software is big enough to hold back the manufacturing industry, it will surely keep entrepreneurs and small businesses (as well as consumers) from being able to use 3D printing in innovative ways.
Computer-aided design (CAD) software was made for engineers. It allows them to create 2D and 3D representations of objects and is often used for special effects, animation, and graphic design in many industries. The major problem with CAD is that to make working parts, the user must know mechanical engineering. It's not hard to learn the design tool, but if they don't know the correct proportions, ratios, and purpose of that piece and the ones it works with, the resulting object won't turn out very well. What's more is that the software doesn't always translate to desktop 3D printers, especially the affordable, lower-quality ones. This can result in misshapen products.
The industry needs user-friendly software. Now that 3D printing is here to stay, companies are attempting to make desktop 3D printers as simple and compatible as anyone's home inkjet printer.
"The problem with desktop [printers] are the prices and the fact they are not user friendly," said Gary Shu, senior manager of market development for XYZ Printing."There are lots of hiccups and barriers that you have to overcome. The least we can do for now is make them more user friendly, easier, and bring them down to consumer-level pricing."
In his keynote at the conference, Bass said the software trend is moving towards accessibility, but not ownership, just like every other industry. Think Netflix, Zipcar, and Techshop, he said. People are gravitating more toward using services and less toward owning the technologies to run them.
"It just strikes me as odd to say the thing that's going to go the other direction is consumer 3D printing," Bass said. "What are you going to 3D print? [Designs are] all over the internet, there are models everywhere you can download."
This "maker community" that is emerging quickly and strongly is democratizing software with platforms like Thingiverse and Shapeways, which offer free, open source, downloadable designs. With the rapid evolution of design software, non-technical 3D enthusiasts can download a design straight from the web or from the cloud using some personal 3D printers.
Users can tweak Thingiverse designs with a MakerBot application, though the process is difficult if the user doesn't understand or own design software. What's posted on the website is all that most people have to work with, and since anyone can upload, the designs aren't always reliable.
Enter Adobe, who is trying to solve this problem with the recent addition of 3D printing functionality to Photoshop. The feature is available with Photoshop version 14.1, a free update for Adobe Creative Cloud members. In a press conference in January, product manager Andy Lauta said he expects the tool to be used for finishing, decreasing the number of applications needed to get a 3D model designed and printed.
Users can create a 3D design using Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, using layers to add color, texture, or words as they would in the original version. From a menu, users can choose their material, color, and price range. Once the design is finalized, they can export it as a file or print directly to a printer at home. Direct printing is currently compatible with MakerBot and 3D Systems Cube desktop printers. The designs can also be sent to Shapeways for printing.
"It is a finishing tool, but also a starting tool for people that want to get into 3D printing," said Paul Trani, a senior cloud evangelist for Adobe at the Inside 3D printing conference last week. "What we are missing is the content. The content is going to drive the technology."
However, Adobe's new 3D printing tool is targeted to fine artists, graphic designers, and developers who use Adobe Creative Cloud. Trani said he envisions small businesses using the tool to create signs, swag, and other products eventually, but the tool isn't meant for the general public for whom Photoshop is too expensive or unintuitive to use.
This is a small step in the right direction, but the gap is still apparent.
- Autodesk CEO 'debunks the hype' on 3D printing, says industrial 3D printing is the real revolution
- Photos: Best of the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo
- 3D printing: 10 companies using it in ground-breaking ways
- 3D Systems CEO touts '3D Printing 2.0' as it attempts to pre-empt HP
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.