The Path to 3D Printing

3D printing enthusiasts are obsessed with the idea of getting a 3D printer into every home, on the basis of a faulty analogy with personal computers.  Their idea is:  “Personal computers used to be these kind of clunky, limited items.  Then they went wide, and people came up with all kinds of crazy ideas for how to use PCs and now everyone has a PC and you can use your PC to gamify your calorie consumption online!”

If you point out the such an enthusiast that 3D printers are pretty useless, they’ll say, “But in 1980, you wouldn’t have realized that your PC could be used to gamify your calorie consumption online!  People will think of all kinds of crazy uses for 3D printers, too.”

This narrative is implicitly based on the idea that people in the 70’s and 80’s plunked down hundreds or thousands of dollars for PCs that basically sat around gathering dust until a mystical critical mass was reached at which point there was suddenly a consumer software industry.  Which is obviously nonsense.

How did PCs work?  The value proposition for PCs in the 70’s was pretty simple: they were word processors.  People who already had typewriters, and who used those typewriters regularly, replaced them with word processors that had substantially similar interfaces (type on a keyboard), but which also allowed correcting and editing.  And, don’t forget, people needed to get physical copies of documents much more routinely in the 70’s, since there was no electronic transmission of documents.  A fairly large number of people had typewriters that they routinely used.  Not a majority of people in the US or anything, but a substantial number.  And also, of course, typewriters were extensively used in business.

With word processing as an entree into a household, financial software of various kinds — basically budgeting and spreadsheets — could follow.  Again, the value proposition was obvious, particularly once you already had a computer.

Following those were computer games.  Computer games were the first major area of software that didn’t simply upgrade an existing need, but created a new one.  Word processors were better versions of typewriters.  Spreadsheets were a replacement for a currently manual process.  Games on the other hand were a whole new thing — but they could be introduced to the public through arcades, and their value proposition was, once again, pretty obvious.  Play a computer game for ten minutes and you could say, “Oh!  I’d like to do this more, and obviously I need a computer for it.”

And that’s what got non-networked computers into people’s houses.  Once that happened, once there was a large installed base of people who had obvious value propositions, then, yes, the consumer software industry started doing crazy things and people explored what non-obvious stuff they could do with their computers.  But what got them into people’s houses were word processing, spreadsheets, and games.

Note also that before the internet, lots of people just didn’t have PCs.  They were useful, but they weren’t must-haves until the internet came along, and the internet brought with it another really obvious value proposition:  email.  Generations of students went to college and found out that email was a great way to communicate (especially pre-mobile phone).  Generations of parents found that their children were saying, “No, you have to get online and send me emails, I don’t want to call you.”  And as email brought people onto the internet, they used the web for other kinds of messaging, broadcasting as in webpages, and many-to-many communication as in USENET and forums.  And that led to all the crazy shit on the web, including most importantly shopping.

All of these intermediate steps are missing for 3D printers.

There is no equivalent of word processing on a 3D printer.  For 99.9% of all Americans out there, there is nothing that they already do several times a year that could be made better by having a 3D printer.

There is no equivalent of computer games on a 3D printer.  There is nothing you can point to with a 3D printer and say, “Look!  This is a cool thing that you could do that would be really fun, that you could start doing in an hour, if you had a 3D printer.”

There is no equivalent of the internet with a 3D printer, and there may well never be such an equivalent.  PCs were still a specialty item, if a pretty broad specialty item, pre-internet.  Even with their obvious value propositions, they weren’t a value to everyone — more to a fairly large minority.  It was only when they became infrastructure that they became a value to pretty much everyone.  It’s not clear what would make 3D printers part of the infrastructure.

Those intermediate steps are still important today.

Most of what people do with their computers today is not gamifying their calorie consumption online.  It is: messaging in various forms, shopping, word processing, spreadsheets, and games.  If you took out the value of messaging, word processing, spreadsheets, and games from PCs (and smartphones, and tablets), but left all the other crazy shit that computers can do, then most people wouldn’t need a computer and wouldn’t put down hundreds or thousands of dollars for one.

Until and unless some kind of obvious value proposition comes for consumer 3D printing, it doesn’t matter if you get the price point down from $300 to $200, or improve the resolution of low-end consumer models from half a millimeter to a tenth of a millimeter.  People don’t want them because they aren’t useful.  They will never get the install base to replicate the crazy manifold uses of consumer software without obvious, straightforward value propositions.

3D printing, and micro-manufacturing in general, is an important technology.  But it’s not a consumer technology, it’s a commercial/industrial one.  Its enthusiasts should stop imagining that every important technology follows the pattern of the personal computer.

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