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3D Printing: The Next Technology Gold Rush

3D Printing: The Next Technology Gold Rush - Christopher D. Winnan A few months ago, after reading a newspaper article about 3D printing, I placed a book about 3D printing on my to-read list. The author of this book noticed it, I suppose, and asked if I’d be interested in a copy of his book in exchange for a review. I agreed.

Glad I did!

Before I review the book, a few words about my interest in 3D printing. First, I majored in Comparative Literature as an undergraduate. Since then, I’ve often wished I majored in engineering. Life and earning a living (blah, blah, blah) have prevented me from making up for that - I just haven’t gotten around to being a tinkerer, even as a hobby, though becoming one is a dream of mine. My grandfathers were both tinkerers. So was my grandmother actually. Tinkering seems like such a good idea, even if mass production and economies of scale have largely rendered it obsolete. I had relatives who succeeded in manufacturing despite not having college degrees, though those days are long gone, right?

Maybe not. That’s what interests me about 3D printing. Is it a chance for me to mess around not only as a designer but as a maker of things? Is it also a chance for me to redeem myself as a technology visionary? I mean, back in the early 80s when my high school had a few weird computers that people programmed FORTRAN or something on, I had no interest. Zero. What the hell did those things have to do with me and my interests? I’m not the only one who missed the boat, but it has amazed me since then to see how wrong I was, how much computers have revolutionized and changed things that interested me when I was young, such as reading, writing, publishing, and art.

So for me, 3D printing brings together a few things. I don’t really expect to drop everything (or anything probably) and try to jump on board some gold rush, but I am interested. And I do believe that 3D printing offers tinkerers a lot of opportunities for fun and profit and who knows what else. It does seem possible that 3D printing has the potential to be a transformative, disruptive technology, like computers. If my grandfather was alive, I can see him having one and tinkering like hell. Recent news articles about Edward J. Snowden and his betrayal of the government mention his lack of education/credentials and his excellent pay package. He was a tinkerer; the money came later. If you put in the hours, hard work can pay off even if you are not on the cuff of the transformation like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but it probably won’t if you lack passion. Someone probably will make a mint from 3D printing, but they probably won’t just be chasing money, like lawyers allegedly chase ambulances, they’ll probably be smart tinkerers, interested in design, content, and business.

Lawd! Enough about me. Onto the book:

I am a neophyte and loved the detail. Depending on your level of expertise, I suppose some of it may not be necessary, but I’d be very surprised if there isn’t a lot of useful information, no matter how knowledgeable you already are. If nothing else, the author has assembled a comprehensive starting point from which you can navigate to ever more information. Investigating the links and suggested resources will take me years. Most important is the range: Winnan covers everything from technical details, to product ideas, to the big, big picture, 3D printing and the future. I am sure this book will be useful even as my experience and skills grow. I will be able to return to it and have a richer understanding of some passages. Using this book as a resource, I am sure, will save time and cut down on false starts and dead ends.

The book is divided into four parts. Part 1, called A Technology Primer, introduces the reader to the world of 3D printing: 3D printing technology, scanning technology, modeling technology, and so on. Some of you may end up skimming parts of it, some like me, may not. It describes, explains, and lists a lot of sites and a lot of activity, such as Thingiverse.com, where designers post printable files of their work. This section is full of an awful lot of information, including speculation that CAD software is bound to get simpler to use, just as graphic design software has. Among other things, the author suggests getting familiar with SolidWorks so that you can evaluate the quality of files, and suggests tutorials for doing so. Are you familiar with Tinkercad, Sketch up, and Kinect? What about 3D printer forums on Kickerstarter? There is so much more, including comments about places on the internet that link designers, manufacturers and customers. You can even get started if you don’t have a printer. 3D printer services, such as Shapeways and Sculpteo, already exist.

Part 2 is called financial implications and opportunities. I remember a newly minted MBA telling me that he now thinks differently, that he is better able to spot opportunities and consider possibilities. As he spoke, I had my doubts and thought his boast could probably be turned into a Dilbert cartoon. However, Winnan, the author of this book, is a mind on fire, and he proves it in this section. Maybe, just maybe, I’m beginning to think like a newly minted MBA. When the barber was cutting my hair the other day, I was wondering if the shaving machine attachments might be interesting products for a 3D printer. Final products, not just prototypes, are the goal. Winnan also emphasizes that 3D printers will not be trying to compete with mass production and economies of scale. Think small runs, quick turn around, custom fabrication, high end. He shares lots of ideas for products. Lots. If I listed some of his categories here, it would actually be deceptive, because you would think you get it, but the most instructive thing about it is seeing how he mines the Internet for data and inspiration. One example: I remember my mother visiting a friend’s neighbor. This person was into doll houses and furniture. When Winnan brought up doll house furniture as a 3D printing product, I remembered my mother’s story and knew Winnan was right. There are many other niche communities besides doll house aficionados that large manufacturers are not fully satisfying.

Part 3 is called Storm Clouds on the Horizon. Here Winnan addresses the big picture in various ways. It’s interesting, especially if you are an ambitious tinkerer of one kind or another. He addresses naysayers if you’re worried about them. He offers up historical analogies that may convince you that 3D printing could be an extremely transformative technology. Even if he’s wrong, I think a lot of people will have a lot of fun with this stuff. I liked the part about large scale printing: buildings! I did not know it already exists. I also liked the part about printing materials, not just plastic, but recycled plastic from the sea, sawdust, metal alloys, human ashes, ceramics, and more. If you want to use a 3D printer to better the world, read what he has to say about 3D printing in the Third World and about the disruptive power of 3D printers.

Part 4 is appendices where he shares and comments about his sources, etc.

In conclusion, good book. Informed, detailed, thoughtful. You may not strike it rich, but you may, especially if you are technically orientated and creative. If you aren’t, you could still have a lot of fun.