A 3D Printer on the Desk of Every Engineer and Designer

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At the center of the MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer — our best known product — is the word “desktop.” I now think a lot about the tops of desks, after a decade around industrial 3D printers. And I believe that the desk of every engineer and every designer needs a 3D printer on it. That’s true whether you work in a one-person studio or a Fortune 500 company.

Of course mass adoption would be great for MakerBot. But I firmly believe that a 3D printer on every engineer’s and designer’s desk is what every company needs, that being so close to a 3D printer makes a quantum difference in your ability to create and innovate, to make your best work.

Desktop isn’t just about size. As I headed last week to Chicago and up into Wisconsin to meet with GE Healthcare, S.C. Johnson & Son, and other customers on my Listening Tour, I got new insight into how engineers feel when they are making things and solving problems. One engineering manager told me he has noticed that engineers will try out riskier stuff — more daring concept models, multiple options — when they have a 3D printer on their own desk, ideas that they’d be too embarrassed or intimidated to send to the internal print service bureau, lest somebody see and judge them before the ideas have been worked through. “I have seen product development ideas that were not possible before, simply by having the printers sitting beside the engineers,” he said.

Back in New York, Mark Palmer, MakerBot’s director of industrial design, affirmed the engineer insight. Before MakerBot, Palmer worked for Motorola Solutions in New York. His “rapid prototyping” involved ordering 3D prints from Motorola’s internal prototyping labs, on site and in Florida. It wasn’t just the queue time and distances that added friction to the process, but the inevitable second-guessing by other designers, engineers, and business leaders who would see your prototypes in the lab, waiting to be picked up. Without proper context, an early prototype could be viewed as a failure, or it might be politically volatile.

Some prototypes need to be kept close to the chest until the time is right. Think of what you’d write in a notebook but not on a whiteboard, or on a whiteboard but not post on the company Intranet.

Prices can also affect how you prototype. Filament for a desktop 3D printer costs a lot less than materials for an industrial one — so much less that, for some companies that own a bigger 3D printer, the savings on materials alone will pay for a new MakerBot Replicator. Likewise, if you’ve ever ordered SLAs from a vendor, a desktop 3D printer can cost less than a couple of those. The relatively small cost of desktop 3D printing materials leads to more and bolder experimentation.

Then there are feedback loops, which are much quicker with a 3D printer on your desk. One engineer told a story about how he can look at a print that’s only half done and already see what needs more work. He hits cancel, reworks his 3D design file, and starts printing on his MakerBot Replicator again. More iterations, more refinement, means better solutions.

There will be skeptics, just as there were when the office computer was a mainframe that took up most of a room and the PC showed up. A 3D printer on every desktop isn’t some far-off dream. It can happen now.