3mflogo2Imagine one day your kindergartener comes home from school, logs onto your a computer and literally within minutes begins 3D printing a toy that his friend emailed to him 5 minutes ago. Now imagine your 85-year-old grandmother downloading a recipe, and after deciding on a few final ingredients, she begins 3D printing tonight’s dinner. How about a NASA astronaut using this same type of software to create a replacement part in space that is used to save an entire crew on a mission gone bad. Yesterday this may have seemed like an outlandish science fiction novel, but today, thanks to the likes of Microsoft, Autodesk, HP and others, this sci-fi sounding future may be a reality soon.

Yesterday, as many of you are aware, Microsoft announced the launch of the 3MF Consortium and the complete overhaul of the .3MF file format. On the surface, it may not seem like much of a big deal, but in reality this is huge!

Microsoft isn’t the only large company taking part in this initiative. Autodesk, Dassault Systems, HP, netfabb, Shapeways and SLM Solutions are also founding members of the consortium — a consortium that has agreed to team up to take 3D printing to the next level. With Microsoft, Autodesk and Hewlett Packard all in the mix, pretty much everything from the hardware, software, firmware, and materials sectors of the 3D printing space should be covered. Certainly more members will be joining the consortium as time goes by, although there may be some resistance at first by some of the larger companies who have been seen as mainstays within the 3D printing industry for a long time.

WHAT THIS REALLY MEANS

My inbox has been flooded with emails from people within the 3D printing space, asking what this means for the future of 3D printing and additive manufacturing in general. While no one can say for sure, I certainly can put forth my best guess. 3D printing, as many of you are aware, has a long way to go before seeing mainstream adoption take place. Years ago, if you were to ask some of the most brilliant minds within the technology industry if personal computers would be something seen in virtually all future homes, the majority probably would have said “no”. The reason? It’s a simple one. 25-30 years ago, there was really no reason to have a computer in the typical home because there were no applications or software packages invented yet to make this idea a realistic one.

Microsoft Windows 1.0 - Released in 1985

Microsoft Windows 1.0 – Released in 1985

Hindsight is always 20/20, while foresight is simply a guessing game. What Microsoft, Autodesk, HP, and others are aiming to do for the 3D printing space with 3MF is similar to what Microsoft, IBM and others did for the personal computer in the late 80s and early 90s. They are the ones who made personal computers a useful tool, and created the demand which ultimately led to the mainstream adoption of the hardware. While most people are looking at 3MF as merely just another file format among the thousands already in existence, I see it as the start of a revolution — one which will, within a decade’s time, make 3D printing as common as the personal computer is today.

The reason for this is a simple one. 3MF aims at creating a method of simplicity for the 3D printing space. Whether you are a NASA astronaut about to head into outer space, a 5-year-old child, or an 85-year-old grandmother who likes to experiment with different cooking techniques, 3MF looks to make 3D printing a tool for everyone. Whether we are talking about $200 desktop 3D printers or $1 million direct metal laser sintering machines, 3MF has the potential to be the one file format which doesn’t require a rocket scientist to run hardware with. The 3MF format features complete model information contained within a single archive, including the model’s mesh, materials, colors, textures and print ticket.  This will be a huge relief for those who are frustrated with today’s technology.

Imagine if 3D printing was as simple as its 2-dimensional counterpart, allowing anyone to simply load up a file, make some easy modifications to it, perhaps using Microsoft HoloLens, in conjunction with various Autodesk CAD software packages, and then just click “print”. Doesn’t this sound like a type of process that you would want to take part in, not having to worry about slicers, if an object is “water tight”, or if your hardware is even capable of printing that object?

3mfholo

“A new format will enable anyone to fully use 3D printing to its current potential, and, most importantly, will be adaptable for future technological advances,” explained Peter Weijmarshausen, Shapeways CEO.

Adaptability is an important point as well because undoubtedly we will continue to see tremendous innovation both on the hardware and software sides of the 3D design and 3D printing space.

Last month at the Inside 3D Printing Conference, I had a chance to listen to Scott Schiller, global director of HP’s 3D printing business, talk about his company’s future expectation when it comes to their hardware. HP’s future lineup of 3D printers will be able to print on a voxel (3-dimensional pixel) level. This means that these machines will be capable of laying down a different color, texture, or material (including conductive materials) for each individual voxel. This potential literally means the possibilities are endless when it comes to what you can and can not 3D print. Current STL and OBJ files do not have the ability to handle such complexity, but 3MF does.

“HP’s participation in the 3MF Consortium is another proof point that demonstrates our commitment to advancing the 3D printing industry in a collaborative way,” explained Schiller.

Collaboration is a key point, and it may be one of the greatest obstacles in preventing 3MF from ultimately accomplishing what it sets out to do. There will certainly be some resistance to the consortium by some of the 3D printing industry’s largest players.

RESISTANCE

There are companies out there who have been working within the 3D printing space for decades. These are companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems — companies who have gained the respect of the industry, having been innovators within it for such a long time.

Have you ever had a job where you were the boss, and you held this position for several years or even decades, until upper management decided to hire someone who they believed could take the company in a new direction? In doing so, they put someone in charge, one level above you, who decided to take a more “modern” approach to solve the same problems you have been taking care of for years? Well this has to be the same type of feeling that some of these mainstay companies within the industry are feeling with newcomers Microsoft and HP jumping on board trying to make changes to an industry that they have been leading for decades.

3mffeatured

While on the surface, 3MF appears to be beneficial to everyone, some companies may not feel this way, and it will take a whole lot of convincing to bring them all on board. Microsoft is a huge player though, and because of this I fully expect just about everyone to eventually jump on board if 3MF shows that it can be successful in bringing new ideologies and methodologies to the industry.

It will certainly be interesting to see how quickly 3MF develops and how soon hardware and software manufacturers begin adopting the file format for use within their products. Will smaller desktop manufacturers be keen on overhauling their systems in order to jump on board, or will they continue utilizing the systems which they have been successful with in the past? All of this remains up in the air, but if successful, 3MF will play a major part in revolutionizing the 3D printing space.

Perhaps in 10-15 years, when we are eating our 3D printed lunches from our 3D printed chairs with our 3D printed utensils, we will look back on this day as a day which ultimately led to the mainstream adoption of 3D printing technology.

What are you thoughts on 3MF? Will it lead to 3D printing following the same path as the personal computer, or perhaps it will simply be a failed attempt to create something that we aren’t yet ready to utilize.  Discuss in the 3MF forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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