I recently became a happy owner of a Solidoodle 2 3D printer. This has been the start of a beautiful addiction, but more on the hardware hacking aspects in another post.
If you haven’t heard of it before, 3D printing refers to a family of manufacturing methods, originally developed for rapid prototyping, the first of which appeared almost three decades ago. Much like mainframe computers in the 1960s, professional 3D printers cost up to hundred thousands of dollars. Starting with the RepRap project a few years ago, home 3D printers are now becoming available, in the few hundred to a couple of thousand dollar price range. For now, these are targeted mostly to tinkerers, much closer to an Altair or, at best, an Apple II, than a MacBook. Despite the hype that currently surrounds 3D printing, empowering average users to turn bits into atoms (and vice versa) will likely have profound effects, similar to those witnessed when content (music, news, books, etc) went digital, as Chris Anderson eloquently argues with his usual, captivating dramatic flair. Personally, I’m similarly excited about this as I was about “big data” (for lack of a better term) around 2006 and mobile around 2008, so I’ll take this as a good sign. :)
One of the key challenges, however, is finding things to print! This is crucial for 3D printing to really take off. Learning CAD software and successfully designing 3D objects takes substantial, time, effort, and skill. Affordable 3D scanners (like the ones from Matterform, CADscan, and Makerbot) are beginning to appear. However, the most common way to find things is via online sharing of designs. Thingiverse is the most popular online community for “thing” sharing. Thingiverse items are freely available (usually under Creative Commons licenses), but there is also commercial potential: companies like Shapeways offer both manufacturing (using industrial 3D printers and manual post-processing) and marketing services for “thing” designs.
I’ve become a huge fan of Thingiverse. You can check out my own user profile to find things that I’ve designed myself, or things that I’ve virtually “collected” because I thought they were really cool or useful (or both). Thingiverse is run by MakerBot, which manufactures and sells 3D printers, and needs to help people find things to print. It’s a social networking site centered around “thing” designs. Consequently, the main entities are people (users) and things, and links/relationships revolve around people creating things, people liking things, people downloading and making things, people virtually collecting things, and so on. Other than people-thing relationships, links can also represent people following other people (a-la Twitter or Facebook), and things remixing other things (more on this soon). Each thing also has a number of associated files (polygon meshes for 3D printing, vector paths for lasercutting, original CAD files—anything that’s needed to make the thing).