The largest companies in 3-D printing are racing to simplify design software so that it can become as easy to make an object as it is to send a document to a printer.
Interest in 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is exploding due to the falling cost of machines that can lay down finely targeted layers of plastic to make simple products, like jewelry or sculptures, much as a traditional printer sprays ink onto paper. The idea is that 3-D printers could democratize design and eventually manufacturing by letting anyone make physical things in small quantities, without the expense of an assembly line.
The technology still has a ways to go—making objects on consumer printers is slow and expensive. To print a solid plastic apple on MakerBot’s $2,000 consumer printer, for instance, takes seven hours and costs $50 in supplies, so it’s no competition for cheap plastic goods made in China.
But the bigger obstacle to a 3-D printing revolution is that few consumers or designers can actually operate the software used to render objects and turn them into files that can be printed. “A lot of people are 3-D printing other people’s designs, but they can’t yet model their own. They are in a holding pattern,” says Matthew Griffin, director of community support at Adafruit Industries, an online marketplace for high-tech hobbyists. “There is a gap between what they are seeing and what is inspiring them and what they can make.”