Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Would you print a printer?

One of the oft-proclaimed goals of many of the academically-sponsored development projects has been self replication; that is, the ability of a machine to create all the components necessary to build a copy of itself. In particular, the RepRap project at Bath University in the UK seems to consider this the holy grail of personal fabrication technology.

It's a cool goal, but my perspective here is that market viability will the critical factor in mass adoption of fabbing machines. So I question the importance of the whole self-replication aspect. Sure, as the technology matures and develops in sophistication, consumers will be able to create more and more sophisticated objects, including complex electronic components, and conceivably, another fabrication machine. And this will be an exciting time, because it will allow true open source hardware development and extremely rapid innovation. But as a potential consumer in the early days of personal fabrication, I'm more interested in being able to fab up a wall mount bracket for my new television monitor, or new personally-tailored insoles for my running shoes, or a custom side table to fit in the odd-shaped corner of my entryway.

New Scientist published an informative article today about personal fabrication and the current state of development. From the article, a few notes from Fab@Home's Evan Malone at Cornell University:

"We are trying to get this technology into as many hands as possible," Malone told New Scientist. "The kit is designed to be as simple as possible." Once the parts have been bought, a normal soldering iron and a few screwdrivers are enough to put it together. "It's probably the cheapest machine of this kind out there," he adds.

Now if the goal here is get this technology into as many hands as possible (and this is most certainly the goal!!), then we won't get there by distributing kits that require soldering irons. The center of the bell curve here is the group of consumers who have never touched a soldering iron, who will only consider playing with this technology if they can take the machine out of the box, plug it in, and start making stuff. The recently-announced Compu-Carver is much more on-target, taking care of the difficult technological challenges and packaging the experience in a straightforward off-the-shelf machine. It should be noted that the Compu-Carver is a CNC router, and that the Fab@Home machine is a 3D deposition printer, but there's no reason the same strategy can't be used to market this manufacturing technology too.

The highest level of performance is a long-term goal, but in the short-term, self replication is only a distraction from the fundamental and basic benefits that consumers will need to encounter. These fundamentals need to be understood widely by the public, and their relevance to normal life needs to be communicated. The ability to make a machine that can make a machine that can make a machine might get the true geeks interested, but it's only going to glaze the eyes of the average consumer.


Blogger plaasjaapie said...

"Now if the goal here is get this technology into as many hands as possible (and this is most certainly the goal!!), then we won't get there by distributing kits that require soldering irons."

Right nowHome 3D Printers are about where the PC was when Steve Jobs and the Woz were cobbling the first Apple computer together in Jobs' parents garage. No doubt HP or Epson or the like will, in a few years, mass produce one for people who find using a screwdriver or soldering iron something they can't be bothered to learn. Most people are always going to be like that, I expect

Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 5:55:00 AM PST  
Blogger Adrian Bowyer said...

You must remember that self-copying means a geometric growth in numbers. No matter how small the exponent, a self-copying (therefore geometric) manufacturing system will inevitably overtake any conventional factory-production (therefore arithmetic) system, no matter how bit the aritmetic multiplication factor...

Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 9:55:00 AM PST  
Blogger plaasjaapie said...

Quite true. I expect that open source and bootstrap RepRaps, once we have specifications and clear tutorials written will spread like a new strain of flu and shock the socks off of manufacturers.

Indeed, I expect that open source technology like the RepRap will keep a fairly large slice of the aggregate personal replicator market.

All the same, I think that there will always be a role for a factory produced personal replicator by the likes of HP and Epson. There will be a lot of people out there who will not have the basic skills to put one together even given the parts but will, all the same, want the ability to print their own transformer toys and the like.

The key role I see open source technology playing in that regard is in keeping the more egregious business models that HP, for example, has developed which involve outrageous prices for cartridges and low prices for the constantly upgraded printers that use them.

I see industries, especially electronics industries becoming very early adopters of RepRap technology. Consider the cost of setting up an automated production line for, say, PC motherboards and then consider that the ubiquitous pick and place machines that you see on the production lines there are a natural product to be printed up by a RepRap.

Things look good for a lot of people when RepRap really gets on line... and really dark for a lot of others.

Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 8:35:00 PM PST  

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