Accessibility is a key issue around 3D printing for makers and consumers, yet while these two groups have different prerequisites in terms of what they need access to, it seems to me that this is a fundamental issue that needs focus and coherence to continue the direction of travel towards greater and more widespread adoption. Accessbility can mean different things to different people and even the dictionary definition of ‘accessible’ throws up a number of permutations that need to be considered when applying the term to 3D printing for the consumer and the maker:
- (of an object, service, or facility) able to be easily obtained or used.
I think we can safely drop “facility” at this point, which leaves the following:
- 3D printers – able to be easily obtained by the maker
- 3D printers – able to be easily obtained by the consumer
- 3D printers – able to be easily used by the maker
- 3D printers – able to be easily used by the consumer
- 3D printing as a service – able to be easily obtained by the maker
- 3D printing as a service – able to be easily obtained by the consumer
- 3D printing as a service – able to be easily used by the maker
- 3D printing as a service – able to be easily used by the consumer
- 3D printed products – able to be easily obtained by the anyone
- 3D printed products – able to be easily used by the anyone
Admittedly, this seems convoluted, but bear with me, it's important.
To simplify, I think we need to approach this according to the two definitions of “obtain or use” with reference to accessibility and see where we end up.
Accessibility in terms of ‘obtaining’ is probably the easiest place to start, because it would be hard for anyone to deny that for each of the categories that I have listed above, obtaining a 3D printer, 3D printing services or 3D printed products can be done, relatively painlessly, with some money, a computer and a delivery address — by makers and consumers. Although, many would argue that the money is still a barrier to accessibility — in terms of capital cost and the cost of consumables.
For consumers there is little to no extra complexity added to this process when ‘using’ a 3D printing service. Similarly for the designer / maker without their own 3D printer, that wants to simply use a 3D Printing service provider as a bureau, it’s pretty straight forward in terms of usage: submit a design online, receive a quote, proceed or decline.
Where additional complexity does come in to play in this category, and I have heard some conflicts and stress reported, is when designers / makers use a 3D printing service to showcase, sell and print their designs. Ebay-like in conception, the designer / maker can create their own online ‘shop’ which is hosted by the service provider. There are obviously terms and conditions attached to this and it can prove very smooth and easy to use but it can also become ‘unfriendly’! Also, from an onlooker’s perspective, I find this category fascinating because it is an intersection between the maker movement and industry – something I am working on for a future post actually.
I’m going to skip to the last category at this point, because it fits better! How easy is it for consumers to use their 3D printed products once acquired? Well, to be honest, there will be very few consumers ‘obtaining’ functional goods in this way, let alone using them, but that’s down to lack of awareness and a still limited repository [another post for another time]. Aesthetically, it’s so easy – you can take my word for it, or better still, try it yourself.
The two categories that stick out like a sore thumb in the above list is the ability for a maker or a consumer to ‘use’ their own 3D printer. Some makers (a vocal, passionate group that are to be admired) are doing it, but, even while they are enjoying themselves doing it, they would be hard-pressed to call it an easy pastime with complicated set-up procedures and innumerable issues to achieve consistent, reliable prints. Proof, if it were needed, can be found in the blog posted by Deepak a couple of weeks back here on PersonaliZe as he set up and started running his Leapfrog Creatr 3D printer for the first time.
I will never get bored of hearing about this sort of endeavour, and the progress that is being made. I know that there is a (slow) growing community of like-minded people — makers, potential makers and generally interested parties. I think this group will continue to grow and I believe it will pick up pace, but consumers, not so much, not yet.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record — A-GAIN! — until 3D printers are supplied as standard with plug-and-play simplicity they will not even be entertained by the average consumer, and according to some people not even then. Just because you tell them it’s colouring book simplicity, it doesn’t mean it is. That sort of line at this point in time is going to spin people into the trough of disillusionment so fast they’re likely to remain indefinitely cynical. The emergence of an ever increasing number of entry level printers is a sign that there is avid interest in the technology per se — it holds a fascination all of its own that attracts people — but history and reality suggests that a big dip is coming before the technology hits the mainstream. I think many of the current 3D printers will sadly, but inevitably, fall by the wayside to make way for second, third and fourth generations of ‘consumer’ 3D printers, each generation getting smaller in number and more sophisticated in capability. Some, with the right focus & development, and some luck, will survive.
Also, even despite the mainstream coverage, we are not even close to mainstream awareness, let alone mainstream uptake.
It doesn't mean it won't happen, it just means we have to keep on working to break down the remaining barriers, which apart from the points I've highlighted above, includes the input for 3D printing — the design skills needed to press print, not to mention the clean up of the parts once they are out the other side!