Ford's Gift to Engineers: MakerBot 3D Printers

A demonstration is held at the offices of MakerBot, a new, consumer-grade, desktop-size 3-D printer, in New York Photograph by Michael Appleton/The New York Times via Redux

Ford Motor has caught the DIY revolution and now puts 3D printers at workstations for its engineers. Furthermore, the car company plans to put the smaller MakerBot replicators at every engineer’s desk in the coming months. Ford pitches this as its commitment to engineering, but I see it as the future of distribution if the desktop replicator technology follows the path taken before it by the minicomputer and then the PC.

Here’s the Ford video showing an employee talking about using 3D printers for prototype designs of a gearshift.

A Ford spokesman told me that while it’s tough to give an exact count of the number of employees who have the 3D printers, the company has multiple locations at the company’s Dearborn (Mich.) headquarters where hundreds of engineers have access. And at the carmaker’s Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto, Calif., all employees have Makerbots. The most popular areas they are in use today at Ford are in the Vehicle Design and Infotronics group.

As devotees of the computer and broadband revolution may recall, both of these technologies were first deployed in the workplace and then trickled down into users’ homes. Remember the concept of Cyber Monday? That was a thing because people used to have to go into work to use their office broadband to buy stuff online. Now, despite the fact that 19 million Americans lack access to broadband, we still have embraced the consumer Web.

The PC was a similar revolution that started with mainframes, then went to minicomputers, and finally to desktops. With 3D printers I wonder if we’ll see similar adoption trends that we saw with the PC. PCs were very work-specific, with software for productivity dominating, so when people purchased them they tended to do so for word processing, spreadsheets, and other productivity related tasks. Those initial machines were also expensive, so you bought one because you needed it. Later it became a hub for games and fun activities as well.

With 3D printers, which can cost less than $1,000, the common consumer may not see much need for one, yet. But all we need is the right killer app to intersect with the right price point, and the machines will become widespread. Some might argue that printing LEGO bricks is the killer app, but I kind of doubt it. My hunch is it may be more mundane, like someone building an open source library of common household parts that break, or a line of products whose parts could be replaced by parts created in a 3D printer. The printing technology and materials would also have to improve, although I’m certain that with wider adoption this would happen.

And once we have common 3D printers in the home and office, that could signal a fundamental change in the distribution of physical goods, much as the development of the Web was a fundamental change in the delivery of digital content. Instead of buying new furniture, we buy new replication materials and download the designs over the Internet. If the replication materials are recyclable, you might be able to change your home’s decor in a few weeks and consume ever more products at a lower price point.

We’re not there yet, but imagining how the widespread adoption of capable 3D printers could change the world doesn’t just stop with industrial designers or hobbyists. One day you might print out your flatware, your trash cans, or even your next computer. If you think this is nuts, just ponder the line from the minicomputer to your smartphone. Or just go watch one of my favorite videos showing how quickly technology advances.

Welcome to the Internet.

Also from GigaOM:
A Field Guide to 3D Printing (subscription required)

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