3D printers can make anything? Why is the normal response “what can I make?”?

Posted by Chris at Nov. 30, 2015, 10:11 a.m.

Tagged in: content, publishing, replicator, sciencefiction, normals

I Can Make is a publisher of 3D printable content. We make 3D printable files. Often we’re asked why we’re doing this by people at Maker Faires so we thought we should clear it up. It’s all about the difference between the maker audience and the mass market - we’ll call them “the normals” here. We call them the normals as there are considerably more of them than there are the population that constitute the Maker Movement. 

3D printers are essentially just like any other piece of consumer technology in how they will be adopted. They are also not unlike CD players, video recorder/players or games consoles in a way, and it’s useful to see them as such to understand how “the normals” will interact with them. They are, in essence, a “digital content player” type of device. With a CD player, you put in a disk full of digital instructions and with suitable amplification and speakers, sound comes out. With a DVD player, or a games console, it’s sound and vision and you’ll need a television as well. 

With a 3D printer you put digital content in (the gcode or proprietary fileformat) and, with the input of right sort of plastic, a three-dimensional object comes out. This is the magic presented to the mass market in science fiction too - that you will simply say the name of the object you desire and the replicator generates it for you. There’s never a step where you have to design it in CAD first in science fiction.

Some have been disappointed by the slow uptake of home 3D printing. We think the cause for the slow uptake is simply that the mass market, the normals, - the majority - simply don’t know what to do with it. 

All consumer technology devices go through the same adoption cycle that was put forward by Geoffrey Moore in his book “Crossing the Chasm”. In his model, the Early Market, the early adopters are technology enthusiasts and visionaries. They are creators and are happy to tinker with devices. The Mainstream Market are where the majority of sales are made and these people are consumers. They don’t want to tinker, they don’t want to make things, they merely want to use the device they’ve bought. 

Whenever a digital playback device has crossed the chasm into the mass market it has done so partly, or largely due to mainstream content. For CD players it was when there were enough CDs that you wanted to own. The uptake in CD sales can be pretty well charted against the success of Dire Straits “Brothers in Arms” too. For the video recorder/player, VHS won over Betamax as a movie could fit on a single tape. 

At this point in the analysis people often point at the early home computer as an outlier and one more similar to a 3D printer. Early home computers such as the ZX Spectrum were indeed objects of creation, but only for the minority of users (more played games on the them than coded on them). The games also drove the adoption through the viral loops of the playgrounds (talking about games and invitations to play games at each other’s houses). In the case of the ZX Spectrum it was games such as Manic Miner. In many cases the mastery of creating the content for these machines, and the next wave of them, lies in the generation that encounters them as children. For those encounters to happen and for the children to imagine what they want to make there has to be content.

This is why we think that publishers, like ourselves, creating and selling 3D printable content is key to quickly answering the question from a normal purchaser of “what can I do with a 3D printer?”. There’s more likely to be a sale if the sales assistant can point at a range of 3D printable content than if they say “Well, anything. Once you’ve learnt CAD, you can make anything”

Tea, Earl grey, hot. Please.

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