Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are Open Source 3D Printers Really Suitable for Business?

I have to make a disclaimer before going further with this blog. Much of what I will write here is my own viewpoint from what I have read or from conversations I have had with others in the field of 3D printing. The topic is open source 3DP. There are a number of FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers available now in “kit” or open source form. This basically means that anyone can search the internet and find all of the components necessary to build their own FDM printer. Some have assembled the components and offer them for purchase as a kit that you assemble. At first I thought this would be a great way for technical schools to teach about using 3DP as a design tool while at the same time teaching about basic electronics, motion control, and programming. But then I started wondering how many times the kit could be disassemble and reassembled as new students enrolled in the appropriate course. Open source clearly is a way to buy into 3D printing technology at a relatively bargain price. Still, the cost is in the thousands of dollars and from what I can gather the printed part quality is not, at present, all that impressive. Layer thickness is about .012 of an inch which means distinct vertical lines throughout the part. Feature size limit is .080 of an inch which means that many small features simply cannot be printed.

In his blog last week, Al Dean of Develop3D had this to say:

“Many have been talking about the mass adoption of 3D printing for some time, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s going to turn into that world where everyone has a 3D printer in their home for a good long while, if at all. At present, there are dramatically lower cost options available, but these are aimed at the hobbiest looking to take on some new technology and give it a whirl. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but when you’re a professional organisation looking to bring your prototyping needs in house, you need something that’s lower maintenance, that produces more repeatable results and that you can get high-level support for when problems occur. Z Corp admitted that its not looking to dramatically erode the price levels rather continuing to lower things gradually as it can conduct cost economics and redesign work to bring the cost down in increments. After all, these products are aimed at professionals, as they most likely will for many years to come, and that means that a robust product that produces the results, is more desirable than chopping the margins out of the machines in a dramatic manner."

Who then is buying open source FDM printers? It isn’t clear to me that there is an industrial, true business application for open source 3DP. Do you agree? Let me know.


  1. Open source can be a great thing. Just look at Linux and Firefox. The philosophy of 2 heads are better than 1, is evident in open sourcing where an unlimted number of people can collaborate and contribute to a project.

    The note about the poor resolution of open source 3d printers is not relative to the topic of open sourcing. A RepRap has the ability to print with more detail if the nozzle was smaller...of course we all know that would increase the print time tremendously.

    No, the issue of quality comes down R&D and budget. With open sourcing, the R&D department has no limitation on size or location and therefor IMO has the potential to develop a greater product than any corporation.

    Now with all my support aside, the answer to the question about being good for business: NO.

    When a business is looking to purchase equipment they are also looking for training, support, and quite frankly someone to call when things go wrong. When you purchase a product you expect certain thing with it like reliability. If a free software crashes, there is nobody to blame and nobody to rely on for immediate assistance. With Z Corporation products you are no just purchasing a printer, you are purchasing peace of mind. Z Corporation has been around for quite some time, through the recession and is here to stay. Thus, so are the materials, the support, and the upgraded firmware.

  2. >It isn’t clear to me that there is an industrial, true business application for open source 3DP. Do you agree? Let me know.

    When I was young, a friend of my Dad had me over to see his Heathktit computer that he had just put together. It could, sort of, add, subtract, divide and maybe balance a checkbook and it had a modem so you could at 300 bps or slower, communicate. Was there a business case for it? No Was it targeted at industry, No. Was it, as an early PC,, relevant... Well Heathkit is no longer with us but neither is Digital. Digital left a lot of industrial and professional legacies. Heathkit, Commodore, Etc created an industry as well.

    I think the tremendous growth of open source 3dprinting, FDM and others,as well as Shapeways etc, demonstrates a huge interest in additive fabrication that is not being served by the "industrial, true business application" (s). Is there a killer ap out there? I have no idea - I expect there is. Commodity, materials and crowd sourced engineering, as well as plain old copy catting are powerful business drivers. I think open source 3d printing will not appear to affect industrial use this year but I think it will have had a very substantial effect when we look back at the industry 10 to 20 years from now.