The DIY Maker Movement

Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing are supporting the maker movement, a collection of activities in the large and growing do-it-yourself (DIY) community.

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the July/August 2011 issue.

Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing are supporting the maker movement, a collection of activities in the large and growing do-it-yourself (DIY) community. From the beginning of time, people have created objects, but it was not until the 1950s that DIY became popular, especially with home improvement projects. In the digital age of 3D modeling and 3D printing, DIY has taken on a new meaning for some. Never before have “makers” and DIYers received so much attention.

Personal 3D Printers

I believe that low-cost systems from Objet Geometries (objet.com), Stratasys (stratasys.com), 3D Systems (3dsystems.com), and Z Corp. (zcorp.com) have contributed to this movement. However, the lowest priced systems from these companies ($10,000-$20,000) is a lot of money for an individual to pay for a 3D printer—and individuals are the primary drivers of the maker movement. A bigger stimulant has been the open-source systems and kits that range in price from about $750 to $4,000. These machines do not produce parts at industry standard levels of quality, but they provide access to an entirely new set of customers: makers and do-it-yourselfers.
 
I was an early skeptic of the RepRap (reprap.org) project that was started by Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath because of the claim that it would replicate itself. While that hasn’t played out, what is interesting about the work is the open-source approach that has led to tremendous popularity. In a relatively short time, an estimated 1,500 have been placed around the world through the end of last year.

The RepRap project was the genesis for Bits From Bytes (bitsfrombytes.com) (UK) in 2008 and MakerBot (makerbot.com) in 2009. The 3D printers available from these companies are variations of RepRap. The UP! machine from Delta Micro Factory Corp. (pp3dp.com.; Beijing, China), is also using an FDM-like approach and was likely inspired by the RepRap work. Fab@Home (fabathome.org) is an open-source development platform that also extrudes material, but it uses a syringe instead of a filament on a spool.

Together, more than an estimated 10,000 assembled machines and kits have been placed by these five developments. It is believed that most of these systems are being used by individuals to make objects, so they are contributing greatly to the DIY maker movement.

Power of the Web

A number of web-based companies are contributing to the growth of the maker movement. The one with the largest impact to date is Shapeways (shapeways.com), a company launched by the Dutch electronics giant Philips. The company, with headquarters in New York, offers an online marketplace for products made by additive manufacturing. According to Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, the company is selling more than 12,000 products per month—all made by additive manufacturing. What’s more, about 10,000 new designs are being added to the Shapeways’ website each month, according to Weijmarshausen. It is believed that a significant percentage of these designs are from individuals making jewelry, games, puzzles, and other pieces for themselves and others. The average customer price of a product sold by Shapeways is less than $14.
 
Materialise (materialise.com) (Leuven, Belgium), with its i.materialise (i.materialise.com) division, is targeting the DIY maker market. Similar to Shapeways, i.materialise is making efforts to bring AM and 3D printing within everyone’s reach and supplying the tools and manufacturing for people with ideas. Among the projects that have been processed are table lamps, bookends, vases, architectural models, pendants, and cufflinks. Both i.materialise and Shapeways offer web-based “creator tools” that help individuals make custom and semi-custom products.
 
Another company that has developed an online presence among DIYers is Ponoko (ponoko.com) (Wellington, New Zealand). It offers a “personal factory” for anyone wanting to create an object or product from an idea. At the core of the company’s vision is the trade of product designs, similar to the trade in music (iTunes), photos (Flickr), movies (YouTube), and software apps (iPhone), according to Ponoko. The company uses 3D printing and laser cutting for most of its products. Examples include flower and plant stands, clocks, iPad stands, decorations for the home, earrings, and plastic handcuffs.

While Shapeways, i.materialise, and Ponoko are focused mostly on the making of products, Thingiverse (thingiverse.com) is offering a place for the sharing of digital designs with others. The website was created by MakerBot Industries with the ideals of open source programming and the sharing of designs that are required to represent real, physical objects that can actually be made. Many designs (possibly hundreds or more) are at the site. The company believes that manufacturing will become more distributed similar to the way personal computers distributed the power of computing. To a degree, this is already happening.

CAD for the Masses

A big part in engaging DIYers is offering easy-to-use design tools. Most people cannot and will not afford the time and cost of learning professional CAD solid modeling software. Our research shows that fewer than 3 million commercial CAD solid modeling seats are in operation. This suggests that a tiny percentage of the world population is using professional CAD tools, which may not come as a surprise to some. Companies such as Shapeways, i.materialise, and Ponoko are creating web-based “creator” tools that make it easy for the average individual to design an object or modify an existing one.
 
One company that hopes to accelerate the use of creator tools is CloudFab (cloudfab.com). The startup provides an applications programming interface (API) to those wanting to offer web-based creator tools. An example the startup company has shown consists of parametric modeling for creating objects, such as rings. The user enters the ring size, material and band style, and gem material, pattern, and cut. CloudFab wants to become the “Intel Inside” of the additive manufacturing industry and hopes that companies will adopt the approach by licensing and integrating its creator tools.

Autodesk (autodesk.com) is in the process of rolling out 123D, a free consumer software product for kids of all ages, according to Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk. Bass explained that 123D allows anyone to create 3D models and then turn them into physical objects. SolidWorks offered an inexpensive product (under $50) called Cosmic Blobs targeted at kids, but the company pulled the plug on it. Perhaps the timing of the Autodesk product, with so many low-cost 3D printers installed, will be successful. Bass operates a Dimension machine from Stratasys at his home in northern California, so he understands the power of 3D printing.

Meetings and Events Supporting DIYers

In addition to the range of industry conferences and expositions that involve additive manufacturing and 3D printing, a number of events are being offered for the DIY maker community. One example is the Maker Faire (makerfaire.com), a series of events organized by O’Reilly Media, the publisher of MAKE magazine. Two-day Maker Faires are scheduled for Toronto, Ann Arbor, Kansas City, Vancouver, Detroit, and New York. The event in the San Francisco Bay area is said to be the world’s largest DIY festival. Companies such as Ford, Google, GE, and HP are sponsoring the events. O’Reilly has also published an interesting book titled Makers: All Kinds of People Making Amazing Things in Garages, Basements, and Backyards.

In May 2011, Autodesk’s Bass ran an event in San Francisco titled “Reimagining Manufacturing: The Technologies Driving the New Industrial Revolution.” The program explored the questions surrounding mass customization, personal manufacturing, and the maker movement as they go mainstream. An event in June 2011, this one in Phoenix, was titled “The Conference on Social Product Development and Co-creation” and organized by the Product Development and Management Association. It brought together a group of thinkers, makers, and doers to explore co-creative approaches to product development and innovation. In October 2011, the first Thingmakers Conference will be held in London, England.

On the Horizon

New tools to support the DIY maker are developing quickly. One example is a machine offered as a kit that uses digital light processing (DLP) technology, similar to the machines from Envisiontec (envisiontec.de). The kit could become available for a few hundred dollars, according to one source. The quality of the parts made from the machine is very good. (More information, including a video and images, can be found at http://3dhomemade.blogspot.com.)

An interesting iPhone app turns the device into a 3D scanner. The product is available from Trimensional for $4.99 and allows the user to export an STL file. The results are not great, but being able to 3D scan with such ease is unprecedented. Another 3D scanning app for the iPhone is iScan3D from Digiteyezer (digiteyezer.com). The scan results are much better using it, but the price is significantly higher, at €99.99 (about $141). We can expect to see these and other types of DIY tools for smart phones, including Android devices.

It is only a matter of time before a major Internet-based retailer, perhaps Amazon, teams with a provider of digital 3D design content, possibly Shapeways, to provide online, on-demand, personal manufacturing in a very big way. This business model could have a profound and lasting effect on the way products are made and sold.

The world has become a different place. Machines, websites, tools, events, and publications are bringing together what is known as the maker movement. Never before have we had the ability to share and modify digital designs and then make them so inexpensively. Much of what is being produced may not be considered professional quality, but that’s okay. People are expressing their creativity and one never knows where their ideas might lead. One thing we do know, however, is that the maker movement is big business and it is here to stay.