People ask me if 3D printing, as it exists right now, is indicitive of the future. I always say “No.”
When I was in third grade my parents bought me an Atari 800XL. They had shopped around, figuring out which model to buy, and they settled on a sleek and striking slab of pure 8-bit computing power. I remember the day vividly - we drove to a Mom & Pop computer store down the street (I think it was Computer Express on High Street in Columbus, Ohio) and picked out the computer, a joystick, a floppy drive, and a few games. I was in heaven. I think my parents received a small windfall from an aunt who died, thereby allowing us to spend the equivalent of about a thousand dollars in today’s cash on hardware that looked more like a toy than a computer.
I learned to program on that 800XL and I played countless hours of River Raid and Star Raiders. I used the Atari stylus to draw rudimentary comics (and (I’m not making this up) porn) in Atari Artist and wrote stories and printed them out on my Atari 1027 printer. That I remember these things with fondess is a testament to the importance that machine had in my life at the time. It is also important to remember that in our current era of endless computing opportunities a machine like the 800XL in a suburban Ohio home was like dumping a Zippo lighter among the Cro Magnons. The potential - and sheer alienness - of the product was immense.
But am I on an 800XL today? No. My iMac is so far removed from that original machine that it’s not even related. Sure, we’re talking about the same basic structure - CPU, Memory, I/O - but the technology is so far advanced that I can emulate that computer in the browser you’re using.
The same is true for my Makerbot. We are at a very important point in the evolution of 3D printing and the Makerbot (and other “low-cost” printers) are the exact analogs of the home computer movement of the 80s.These products began as homebrew products then became productized and then became popular. Prices fell, improvements percolated out of the “office computing” world, and these toys became tools.
As it stands now, most home 3D printers are toys. They make trinkets, albeit in a very cool way. However, I think a child, given one of these things, will see vistas open up that were impassible before. An engineer, given one of these tools, can connect the virtual with the real in seconds. A techer, given one of these systems, can teach at the intersection of bits and atoms. That’s where we’re at with 3D printing - in those heady, early stages when a few cool people are making a few cool things. Give it a few years and we’ll all be amazed.