“3D printing makes you a superhero” and other insights from Bay Area Software Engineers Meetup

BASE meetup

This week, I attended the Bay Area Software Engineers meetup on 3D printing. I haven’t really gone much to these things, because the information presented is usually pretty rudimentary. However, in spirit of talking to more people interested in 3D printing, I went to check it out for the night. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did I meet some cool people, but there were tid bits by the speakers that were interesting. I’ll share some highlights of each speaker, and then summarize my thoughts on some of the topics mentioned.

The first speaker was Ted Larson of OLogic. As the first speaker, he had a comprehensive overview of what 3D printers were. Good introduction for the uninitiated. Since there’s many articles on the web for beginners about 3D printing, I won’t rehash it here. Jeff McAlvay is the founder of Tempo Automation spoke mostly about the machine his company is making, which automates electronics board making.

  • Tempo Automation’s desktop machine places components onto etched boards.
  • It can do it regardless of the orientation of components and board by using machine learning.
  • In the future, the machine will also be able to etch the board, solder the components, and reflow them.
  • It’s typically hard to manufacture small runs of boards. Their machine is trying to enable faster iteration cycles of small runs of boards.

Espen Sivertsen of Type A Machines was up next. Out of all the talks, his was the most interesting to me.

  • 3D printers aren’t yet ready to be in every home. They’re slow and unreliable.
  • But the pace of the industry moves very fast. 6 months and everything changes.
  • Hence, he makes some predictions about what’s to come.
  • Printers will get faster, cheaper, more precise, reliable, and easier to use. Of the 100+ 3D printer makers, they’re tackling one of those problems.
  • 3D modeling software will need to be much easier to use. Mouse is unintunitve for this task, and gesture control might be better.
  • 3D scanning will get better to give people different options for modeling besides CAD programs.
  • Use of 3D printing in mold generation for secondary processes.
  • Global manufacturing will become local, where local kinkos will have 3D printers.
  • 3D printers in education is important. The mindset of the child becomes one of experimentation and learning it’s ok to fail.

Daniell Applestone of Other Machine Company make OtherMill, a desktop CNC machine. She didn’t talk too much about the machine, but talked about why people love 3D printing.

  • Why do people love 3D printing? 3D printing makes you a superhero.
  • There was really only 3 ways to become a superhero: 1) be exposed to radioactivity 2) be an alien 3) obtain technology and become a god. 3D printing was the third way to become a superhero.
  • Essentially, it’s about control and not needing other people’s permission.
  • The software component is going to be essential and important in making this possible.
  • Global becomes local, where people will solve problems in their local community because they know it best.

Lastly, we heard from Emmett Lalish of Microsoft. He’s the one that designed the screwless heart gears that many have printed.

  • 3D printing is not just 2D printing with another dimension. 2D printing was merely a stopgap in the way to disseminate information efficiently before we had the internet.
  • 3D printing makes objects, which is markedly different. But until we have augmented tactile sensors, 3D printers will fulfill a niche.
  • CAD software is abysmal. Hard to learn, written for engineers by engineers. This needs to get better.
  • There will never be one 3D printer marketplace to rule them all. Many different people have different niche needs.
  • 3D printers have many problems today that need to be solved, from materials, quality, speed, calibration, to usability, reliability, content, and geometry.
  • There are environmental advantages to using 3D printers, from less pollution in delivery of object, reusing the plastic, to biodegradable plastics itself.
  • Microsoft is working on making it one-click-to-print, and releasing a file format for 3D printing over STL, called 3MF. It’s an XML format that contains information other than geometry, like thumbnails and textures.

Overall, my thoughts on the talks were that they were deeper than the usual hyperbole from those that haven’t ever used 3D printers before. The speakers were practitioners firmly planted in reality, but also had the foresight to see what was coming. There are several interesting themes in the talks:

Faster iteration and smaller runs

There is a general trend towards making it easier to make small run of electronics (from 10 to about 500 units). Our global supply chains are mostly set up to take advantage of volume and mass quantities. Many manufacturing suppliers won’t talk to you if you want to make less than a couple thousand units. Being able to shorten iteration times doesn’t only change the speed in which you can deliver your product. More importantly, the shorter iteration times changes how you design from “ready-aim-fire” to “ready-fire-aim”. When you’re able to iterate at a small enough time-scale, you can try more things in the same amount of time, and as a result, you can more fully explore the problem space. A linear decrease in iteration time results in at least a polynomial increase in exploration. Hence, the types of things you can design will also expand in a non-linear fashion.

Without their permission

Having the tools to do things yourself with shorter iteration times not only means faster design speed and exploration of a problem space. You also didn’t need anyone else’s permission to make something. Recently, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit released his book “Without Their Permission“, which details the account of how he started Reddit with the backdrop of how the internet fosters innovation and creativity explicitly because you don’t need anyone’s permission to make something that helps others. Many of the tools people are building for other makers are along those lines. So far, I see many of the same core concepts that made the internet such a powerful force being implemented in the overall tide to make hardware more accessible to everyone.

A change in learning mindset.

Epsen mentioned that when kids used 3D printing, he found that they had a mindset for better learning–which was being ok with failure. This contributed to the boldness of their designs and confidence about their imagination. The mindset for effort, experimentation, and being ok with failure, will serve them well in the future, I believe. Our world changes at a much faster pace than it did before. There are jobs now that didn’t even exist five years ago. It won’t be surprising that kids now will be doing jobs that don’t even exist. Hence, teaching kids how to learn how they best learn is a valuable thing. But I find it’s also a shift in mindset and attitude to realize you can make objects to change your environment or solve your own problems. As a software engineer, we take for granted that we can write code to solve our own problems in the digital world. This is why there are those of us that fight hard for open source software and GNU/free software–so we can make those changes. Many other disciplines that use computers but don’t program them are noticeably lax in their imagination to solve their own problems in the digital world because they don’t believe they can change it. It’s quite empowering and freeing when you’re able to do so, and 3D printing affords the same power I have in the digital world, but in the real world.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

3D printers themselves aren’t the only things that need improvement. Complementary products such as 3D modeling can be much better. CAD software is abysmal, and it needs to be much easier to use. When Espen mentioned gesture control, I imagine it’s something like Tony Stark’s design system. Some of this technology already exists in the form of Elon Musk’s design prototype built upon leap motion, and in 3gear’s highly accurate gesture technology. And other prototypes that are on their way to production, such as Meta’s SpaceGlasses and Thalmic Lab’s Myo. We don’t yet have a universal gesture language to manipulate objects. What is the gesture for “create a hole”? Or “line this up”? While that’s surmountable, I think it will still be hard to design 3D objects with these platforms without haptic feedback. Until you can both see and feel the object you’re creating, I imagine there will still be a gap in intuition.

If you’d like me to write about or expand on any of the thoughts above, hit me up in the comments or on twitter and let me know. Until next time, have a good week!

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Posted in analysis, event
One comment on ““3D printing makes you a superhero” and other insights from Bay Area Software Engineers Meetup
  1. tenhatco says:

    What a wonderful set of ideas! And those ideas were presented in a way that even I could understand. Bravo.

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