Forget 3D printers in every home. We need a makerspace in every neighborhood!
This evening I have left a 27 hour print for a customer running unattended. It’s printing on a high end desktop FFF machine (an Ultimaker 2) and when I get back to it in the morning there will be the usual excitement tinged with apprehension. Will the result live up to expectations? Will I be able to remove all the stringy bits and supports so that it looks like a professional product?
Making a desktop 3D printer that is intuitive to use, never gets clogged and delivers top quality prints ever time seems to be the holy grail of the established manufactures such as 3D systems and MakerBot (Stratasys) as well as many a Kickstarter project such as the Buccaneer or ROBOX. But will everyone really go out and buy their own, plus several rolls of filament to get the ball rolling?
A friend compared the buzz of watching his first 3D print to the day when his neighbor got a color TV. Once the first flush of excitement subsides, it turns out that most people are still unconvinced. A little too plasticy or the uncertainty of what one would make. Most desktop printers can layer out a stretchlet with little user effort. It’s not so easy to consistently print a series of functional and high-quality items. A gadget more than a productive tool for the man in the street or in his small business. Since Stratasys acquired Makerbot I have been pleasantly surprised by the improved quality of their support service, but this, surely, is an indication of how much help even skilled users require.
What the prosumer in 3D printing needs is a middle man to navigate past the pitfalls. A local printing craftsman. Recently, I came across the Indian tradition of the wallah – a person plying a trade, and in particular the chai wallah. On street corners and alleyways, train stations and market places, everywhere where a cup of tea is needed, there is a chai wallah. He is skilled in creating his own unique twist on the traditional brew. They use the same tea making tools and basic ingredients but take great pride in perfecting and supplying a product that is both individual and specialized There are all types of wallahs actually: taxi wallahs, recycling wallahs, shoe repair wallahs. So why not 3D printing wallahs to drive the movement towards personal production?
Each 3D printing wallah learns to tinker with and befriend his desktop printers. He does not share all his knowledge, but is happy to guide and support novice makers. The wallah invests his time and acquires the skills to create beautiful and successful prints. He becomes a master of his trade.
He learns to optimize the orientation of an object to get the best result with the minimal support. Having a varied supply of different materials at his fingertips will be the key to his success and he is ready to test experimental filaments and recommend the best one for the job. He can recognize a flaw or error in a digital designs that will lead to a failed print. He supports the uninitiated to enjoy success as a maker without the frustration of the failures. And when his print or printer fails, which it inevitably will, he takes up the challenge, taps into the community of wallahs and finds a fix. He then shares findings with his peers. He does not give up, re-box his machine, and banish it to from whence it came.
The wallah knows how far he can stretch the limitations of his printers and when to turn to another 3D printing technology. He also knows that traditional manufacturing is sometimes the only option.
Our wallah may be a professional or an avid tinkerer whose printers run at home while he is at his day job. Perhaps he is part of a HUB of local 3D printers taking orders for individual customers. He will run the small series production line or produce the prototypes for his local business customer. Of course his customers could buy their own 3D printer, but they really won’t have the time to dedicate to it.
We are starting to see such 3D printing Wallahs emerge and ply their trade. Printer networks exits around the globe, such as 3D HUBS, who now boast over 5000 3D printer owners ready to fabricate for a fee. The customers are mostly local and keen to talk about their objects when they pick them up. 3D printer experience stores, copy shops and FabCafès are springing up around the globe, supplying the printers, the know-how and the inspiration to nurture the prosumer industry.
In the meantime, many tools for construction or sculpting for 3D print have become easily available and accessible. I have seen many an 8+ year old, experienced in Minecraft, modelling their own toys after a 10 minute introduction to Tinkercad.
Couple this with an on-the-spot print-out in the local 3D copy shop and the customer is hooked. This is a reality today. Joris Peels says in his article 33 Reasons to Resist the Hype around 3D Printing, “we don’t all use our own sewing machines to make our own clothes.” Spot on! The wallahs, entice us with access to a 3D printer AND the craftsman to operate it. It is the 3D printing shops, FabCafes, FabLabs and makerspaces as well as the private homes of the HUBs are what will drive the revolution.
After all, anyone can boil a kettle, but it takes time, patience and experimentation to make a unique cup of chai.
Norma Barr is co-founder of DimensionAlley, a 3D printing café in Berlin. In her previous life she was a software engineer but is now happy to work on projects that are sure to reach completion. She also bakes a mean scone.