Just as Kinko’s brought high-end color printing to the masses at affordable rates, 3D printing can find a way to make the technology accessible by most, if not all. The best way to accomplish this is to network 3D printers. As we continue to develop new technologies, it is critical to factor in the benefit to everyone — not just to the elite, and 3D printing should be no exception to this rule.
3D printing’s broad applications have the potential to effect positive change for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and democratizing technology is just as important as developing it. 3D printing has myriad applications in everyday life, but the current cost structure makes it the provenance of the elite/wealthy because they are the only ones able to afford 3D printers. This means there is a strong likelihood of a digital divide occurring in 3D printing, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
If You Can’t Bring Printers to the People, Bring People to the Printers
Even as materials continue to drop in price each year, 3D printers are still costly and will likely remain so for the near future. We can wait for the cost structure to change, and 3D printer accessibility will remain a rarity outside of Silicon Valley and other affluent, tech-savvy locales. Or, we can remedy this inequity by building a network to connect 3D printers and extend this technology’s reach—today. My team and I have built 3DPrinterOS to make this reality possible. 3D Printers can now be connected to the cloud via PC, Mac, Raspberry Pi or Ubuntu and shared out to users around the world, where they can start, control and view prints on demand. A web capable device with 3DPrinterOS installed can be plugged into a 3D Printer via USB and it will connect the printer to our cloud, detect the printer type and automatically make it possible to be controlled, managed and shared via any web capable device (including mobile phones and tablets).
A single printer could be shared with an entire neighborhood, local school district, community of tinkerers, or even a multinational family—the possibilities are endless. Networked 3D printing enables objects to be printed on-demand, and allows ideas to become viable products. With the ability to inspire co-creation on a global scale, networked 3D printing is poised to shift traditional power paradigms by allowing everyone the opportunity to design and build objects at will.
The Future Begins Now
3D printing is already changing the way people live, work, and play on a daily basis. 3D printers are using mud to print homes for people in impoverished areas; dogs and people alike are getting the gift of new limbs through 3D printed prosthetics; and astronauts are receiving tools in space via email. At the annual International Consumer Electronics Show this January, Taiwanese company XYZPrinting introduced an industrial printer that can push out soft foods like pizza and cookies using a simple cartridge system. These advances, however, are accomplishments of the tech illuminati—the early adopter engineers and designers with easy access to 3D printers. So the question remains, how can we democratize 3D printing for the general public?
Part of this mystery has already been solved, thanks to sites like Thingiverse and YouMagine, which enable the public sharing of innovative product designs that can be downloaded and printed by anyone with access. However, this only solves half the problem: printing the files still requires local access to a 3D printer. The missing ingredient—the Holy Grail of the 3D printing industry—is a platform to connect everyone with Internet to a networked 3D printer.
In order to make 3D printing accessible to people worldwide, give people a path to printing that’s easy and affordable. It’s exciting how fast the 3D printing world is growing, but without a platform that’s able to communicate across printers, software, and applications, the public will be unable to unleash the full potential of its capabilities. Current slicing and printing technology is too cumbersome and fragmented for the average user: today’s world demands better. With the wellspring of creativity 3D printing offers, let 2015 be the year we connect the entire world to 3D printing.
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