Hopefully 2013 will be a breakthrough year in technology and with any luck 3D printing will be one of the things to break through. It is already well on it’s way, GigaOm wrote about a development at Ford Motors where 3D printers are starting to show up on many engineer’s desks, 3D printer’s are appearing as office supplies in Staples, and searches for the term (not to mention related stocks) are on the rise.
Near the end of the GigaOm article an argument is made that 3D printing will first need a Killer App to bring it into the mainstream. Drawing parallels from 3D printing to desktop computing the author, Stacey Higgenbotham, argues that productivity tools and word processors were the equivalent killer app. The beauty of apps today is there is no need for a single killer. For desktop computers a single app was necessary because of the complexity of the software and the cost. As software apps have become more bountiful and their distribution more streamlined there is no longer a need for a single app when may will do. New android phones, apple iPads, and Windows 8 machine all rely on apps but what is the killer? No application is killer because so many are customized for individual use; those intended for recreation, such as popular games Temple Run and Angry Birds, are killers but only for a brief second before they are replaced by the next new thing.
The open source nature of many additive manufacturing machines positions them for exposure to designers and developers who are accustomed to sampling code, sharing ideas, and innovating existing products to meet custom demands. Design libraries exist and are growing daily and if there is any killer app it will be a streamlined and simplified marketplace for these files. What Youtube did for videos, making them easy to search and access, a quality library will do for 3D printing and soon we will be looking at stats of how many new designs are uploaded every second. It is this distribution method and the support infrastructure that I predict will be the true killer. I agree with the GigaOm article that 3D printing has the potential to change manufacturing distribution chain, but this alteration is not a matter of software applications as much as it is a change in supply chain and physical machines.
All of the software components are already in place for additive manufacturing to take off. If printer manufacturers can find a way to deliver production materials (plastics, metals, ceramics, etc.) that consumers desire at a reasonable cost and ensure that each of them can still be used in a single desktop machine then it truly will be a happy new year.