Think of 3-D printers as cameras, not printers.

3-D Printers Are Cameras, Not Printers

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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Autodesk Inc. has established a $100 million investment fund "to spur innovation and collaboration in the 3D printing industry." The goal is to "develop in the fastest possible way the 3-D printing ecosystem," the company's consumer group vice president Samir Hanna told Gigaom. The Spark Investment Fund will support not only new hardware and software but also "materials, marketplaces and maker spaces."

Autodesk clearly recognizes that, for all the anticipation, 3-D printing hasn't exactly taken off. Most people have no idea why -- other than for the sheer fun of it -- anyone needs a 3-D printer. The technology is still awaiting its killer app.

Contrary to what the names suggest, a desktop 3-D printer today isn't analogous to a 2-D desktop printer in the 1980s. When computer printers spread, after all, they didn't replace printing plants. They replaced typewriters. As costs dropped and graphics software became easy to use, people found all sorts of new uses for desktop printing. But the technology originally caught on by offering a better way to do something familiar.

Instead of thinking of 3-D printers as printers, it makes more sense to think of them as cameras: a way for non-artists to create images. Before it went digital, photography too required a whole ecosystem, with cameras, film, developing and so on. George Eastman created a vast amateur market by making the part of photography people cared about -- capturing pictures -- easy, while hiding the technically demanding steps. Kodak handled the film and development, proclaiming, "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest."

The critical insight is that the image is what's exciting, not the machine that generates it.

"What 3-D printers are really producing, is demand for design. These machines, this industry, signal a huge, growing appetite for access to 3-D design," said Cosmo Wenman, who's been creating 3-D scans of classical sculptures and releasing the files on sites like Makerbot's Thingiverse. (Wenman, whose early efforts I wrote about here in 2011, has received backing from Autodesk.) Thanks to his scans, you can now make your own "Venus de Milo" or "Winged Victory."

Museums are increasingly putting high-resolution scans of two-dimensional artworks online. Wenman is on a crusade to convince them to do the same with three-dimensional scans, which are often created for internal conservation and study purposes. In July, for example, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced plans to release into the public domain its scan of Rodin's "The Thinker," but so far hasn't followed through.

Such desirable, ready-made scans offer one version of appealingly accessible push-button design -- the equivalent of pre-packaged stationery or website templates. (And they don't have to be highbrow, as Thingiverse's many Halloween offerings illustrate.) But these offerings still limit amateurs to choosing from what people with more design talent have created. The real challenge for Autodesk's Spark fund will be to support the ideas that will make capturing three-dimensional imagery as easy (and as empowering) as point-and-shoot photography.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net