Will There Be a Desktop Manufacturing Revolution outside of 3D Printing?

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The desktop 3D printing revolution was an exciting time; additive manufacturing (AM) enthusiasts were the most interesting people at any party. Whether it was a technically inclined uncle, a classmate determined to change the world, or a former colleague who drank the startup Kool-Aid, they would all make a beeline for us. Those were memorable days.

Now, approximately five million desktop 3D printers are sold annually. While this hasn’t led to the complete revolution many envisioned, we have made significant inroads, with these devices now present on many desks. The world may not have been completely transformed, but a wide range of users including engineers, designers, minifig makers, cosplayers, and DIY enthusiasts are now utilizing 3D printers.

The desktop revolution might still unfold. With the encouragement of new developments by the Bambu Lab, 3D printers have become easier to use, and for the first time, we are a few years away from desktop 3D printers becoming consumer devices accessible to most people. It’s still uncertain whether they will be widely adopted and whether design and 3D scanning technologies will develop at the same rate. However, selling a few million systems annually is a significant achievement, and it’s important to remember that the revolution, though initially declared prematurely, can still occur.

But what about other machine tools? Will there be a desktop revolution for everything else? For the past few years, I’ve been closely observing signs of this happening. Various routers, mills, and lathes have been released. If there is a logic for creating an accessible, easy-to-use 3D printer, then surely there is a need and a market for desktop versions of other machine tools?

My favorite example of other desktop tools is the Mayku, a benchtop vacuum forming machine. I appreciate it because it’s not a tool that immediately comes to mind, yet it appears to work and sell well. Also, from a design and manufacturing perspective, it seems to have been engineered to be both easy and safe to use. At $850, the device is affordable, and I can see how it could benefit both hobbyists and businesses.

A category that is emerging is desktop laser engravers and cutters. Machines like the Xtool D1 diode laser engraver, priced at around $2,500, the Snapmaker Ray for $1,500, and the $1,900 Glowforge Aura appear to be highly user-friendly and accessible. The market seems poised for growth, especially with products like the Glowforge Spark, which will be priced at $600. In the realm of engravers and cutters, there appears to be significant potential for more value engineering.

Routers are also being modernized. I particularly appreciate Shaper’s approach to making its Origin and other routers more accessible, although a $4,000 price tag is still expensive for most people. On AliExpress, you can find CNC routers for around $400. RedFox also sells a tabletop mill for approximately $2,000. The Vevor 3018 is a popular CNC router available for about $200. Roland DG has been producing a variety of desktop, entry-level, and small machine tools for decades, maintaining a good reputation in the industry. The Rownd CNC lathe, priced at around $6,000, targets small businesses and hobbyists. Additionally, there are tiny, Printrbot-reminiscent CNC lathes similar to the one shown in the picture above.

Makerdreams offers a CNC mill that looks impressive. The Nomad 3, priced at $2,800, also has an appealing and familiar design. The Langmuir 3-axis mill, priced at $4,500, appears safe and capable of cutting a significant amount of steel. The Belgian startup Mekanika is producing affordable mills and screen printing machines. However, my significant revelation was discovering that you can obtain a Haas desktop mill for $9,000.

Indeed, there are products being developed and sold in this market. Incumbents, large firms, and new startups are all contributing to the range of desktop and benchtop devices available. Many of these devices showcase value engineering and simpler operation, with designs that are nifty and user-friendly, especially for machine tools. In the realm of laser cutting and engraving, we seem to be approaching a tipping point, with very accessible devices that are both useful and easy to use.

CNC routers and CNC lathes are indeed very affordable, but there appears to be a gap in making the software for them as user-friendly as the hardware. The Mayku and similar devices are making different sectors more accessible as well. Therefore, industry needs are being met to a certain extent. So, what is not happening that is holding back the desktop everything revolution?

There is no Cura. There’s no comprehensive open-source, easily accessible software layer for all these tools. Many commercial firms have their proprietary software layers, but there isn’t a universal solution that can be applied to any machine to significantly enhance usability. This is partly due to the variety of control systems and software requirements out there. However, I do believe that the user experience could be greatly simplified for many. The same applies to the absence of universal firmware solutions like Marlin, which, if available, could make a significant difference.

There is no RepRap project, which I find puzzling. It appears that no one has launched a significant open-source project that encompasses all the tools in the world. An initiative to open-source all machine tools, making them accessible to everyone so that anyone can create anything, would indeed be very compelling and likely attract significant media attention, yet it seems not to have happened. Establishing a central point and focus for open-source development could be highly beneficial.

Kickstarter is less buzzy than before. However, it continues to support the tool community, with the Nomad CNC Mill raising $500,000, the Goliath router bot picking up $1 million, and the tiny pocket CNC garnering $355,000. Startups are still launching on Kickstarter, and ideas are getting funded. But, it seems less likely to create a buzz and attract as much media attention as in the past. Kickstarter itself remains interesting but no longer generates the same level of media excitement as it once did.

The media isn’t paying sufficient attention. In terms of the broader vision, the concept of a machine tool revolution appears to have been overlooked by the media. Moreover, no one seems to have harnessed or generated momentum for this movement.

If people aspire to spark a desktop machine tools revolution, here are my recommendations:

1. Promote and articulate the vision that tools are crucial, and that open-source tools can revolutionize manufacturing and change the world.
2. Establish a central open-source project that advocates for this revolution and channels engineering energy into machine tools.
3. Develop a complete open-source toolchain for firmware, machine control, G-code translation, creation, and authoring.
4. Spread the word about all these developments to everyone, including journalists, and also metaphorically to ‘the birds, the bees, and the trees.’

Locally, there is interest in stories about companies making milling accessible, but this has not yet been successfully linked to a global open-source revolution that resonates with readers of blogs and newspapers.

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