Thoughts from my day in a smart home – the importance of connecting right

When I was asked to take part in a demonstration put on by one of our local communication companies, Cox Communications, showing off what a “smart home” looks like, I of course said yes.  I love gadgets, and smart gadgets more.  On top of that it was another chance to evangelise on the power of 3D Printing.  And I got to hang out in a brand new luxury condo in Downtown Phoenix, a post kid lifestyle change that is very appealing.  Plus we deal with customers designing and improving Internet of Things (IoT) devices all the time, and this is the perfect chance to see such products in action.

So I packed up one of our Makerbots, none of our Fortus machines fits in the back of my Prius, and headed downtown.  The first thing that shocked me was that I had the printer, my iPhone, iPad, and laptop connected to their network in about one minute.  The printer showed up on the Makerbot Print app on my iPad and I was printing a part in about three minutes.

My station, showing off 3D Printing in the home.

The whole point of the demonstration was to show how the new high-speed Internet offering from Cox, Gigablast, can enable a true smart home.  So I was focused on the speed of the connection to the Internet, which was fast.  What I didn’t get till I connected was that the speed and bandwidth of the WiFi in the house was even more important.

When everything was connected, we had 55 devices on the local network talking to each other and the Internet. At one point I was downloading a large STL file to the printer while on a teleconference on my iPhone and my “roommate” was giving a violin lesson to one of his students in Canada.

Oh, and the roomba started to vacuum the floor. On the balcony someone was giving a golf lesson and a doctor was diagnosing a patient in the master bedroom.  That was on top of the smart kitchen gadgets.  And it all worked.  Yes, it all worked.

I’m trying to convey shock and surprise because the reality is that nine times out of ten when I show up for some event, at a customer, or at a friends house and we try and connect things to the internet… it doesn’t work.  If you are a technical guy you know that feeling when your vacation or visit for dinner turns into an IT house call.  All I could think of was how awesome it was that everything worked and it was fast.

So I went to work printing little plastic Arizona style houses with COX on the roof. And then a reporter showed up. “3D Printing, interesting.  Hmmmm…  they are cool and all but really, what does that have to do with a smart house?”  Damn reporters and their questions.  I was still reveling in the fact that everything worked so well, I hadn’t taken to time to think about the “so what.”

Then I thought about it.  3D Printing in the home is just now starting to take off, and the reason why is actually high-speed internet connections. If you wanted a 3D Printer in your home in the past you needed the printer, a high end computer, and some good 3D modeling software on that computer.  Basically you had to create whatever you wanted to make.  Unless you are a trained engineer, that may not be so easy.

My “house” that I was printing at the invent sits on the cloud in my Thingiverse account.

But with a well connected home you have access to places like Thingiverse and Grabcad to download stuff you want to print.  And if you do want to create your own, you can go to Tinkercad or Onshape and use a free online 3D modeler to create your geometry.  All over the web, even on a pad, phone (I don’t recommend trying to do modeling on a phone, but it does work), or on a basic computer.  The files are stored in the cloud and downloaded directly to your printer.  No muss, no fuss.  All you need is a reliable and fast connection to the internet and in your home.

High speed internet and a smart 3D printer makes anyone a maker.

And when we had a three hour break, I went downstairs to a coffee shop on the ground floor of the condo and worked, while monitoring my builds using the camera in the smart 3D Printer.

Pretty cool when you step back and think about how far we have come from that first Stereolithography machine that PADT bought in 1994.  We had to use floppy disks to get the data from our high-end Unix workstation to the machine.  Now it sits on the web and can be monitored.

This may be what we have been waiting for when it comes to 3D Printers in the home moving beyond that technologists and makers.

I’ve been focused on my experience with the 3D printing in the smart home, but there was a lot more to look at.  Check out these stories to learn more:

Phoenix Business Journal: Cox shows off a smart home with 55 connected devices and fast gigabyte internet

The Arizona Republic: Cox ‘smart home’ in Phoenix displays future at the push of a button

I also did a piece for the Phoenix Business Journal while I was at the event on “3 keys to success for smart home devices” based on what I learned while playing with the other devices in the smart home.

All and all a good day.  Oh, and being a 10 minute walk from my favorite pub made the idea of living downtown not such a bad idea, which doesn’t have much to do with high speed internet, connected devices, or 3D Printing.  But one of my goals was to check out post-child urban living…

 

 

Retail 3D Printing at the Beginning of 2013

I just came across a posting from Terry Wohlers that he did in December with some interesting observations on the growth of 3D Printing in retail stores:

3D Printing at Retail Stores

I have to agree with Terry’s assessment that these efforts in Africa and Europe to bring this new technology to a mass market through old business models may not click.  Some of the efforts here in the US seem to be a better fit.  Reading the article, and the fact that non-technical people are constantly bringing up 3D Printing around me, got me to thinking about the retail space and where it is headed.

Is Online the Future for Retail 3D Printing?

Shapeways_websiteIn New York, the VC backed experiment at Shapeways seems like a more viable option for mass retail 3D printing.   There was an interesting interview done in December by the Business Insider that sheds some light on how things are going, but does not discuss the business aspect too much.  What I am interested in knowing is what type of margin Shapeways is making on their parts with the prices as low as they are, or are they using their buckets of VC money to build market share in hopes that volume will bring their margins up?  It would be interesting to know.

A French company called Sculpteo has a similar model. I’m sure there are others.

3D Systems, along with buying up as many technologies as they can, has launched their own retail competitor to Shapeways called Cubify.   Their advantage is that they do not have to pay full price for machines or materials.  It is early days and in some ways it looks like a vehicle for promoting their low-end FDM CUBE machines, but the reach of 3D Systems may make a difference.

The Brick and Mortar Store

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Although these online based models have the advantage of access to the masses to grow their markets, storefront retail outlets for 3D Printing also seem to be taking off.  Makerbot, the kings of getting media attention for low-end 3D printing, has a showcase store now in Manhattan. This store may be more for marketing than a direct revenue generator, but it starts a trend.   A new startup, 3DEA is also in New York City and they are trying to use similar low-end FDM technology to provide 3D printing to the masses through a corner store, literally.

Here at PADT we are aware of several companies starting the same thing in the west and they seem to have good solid business models that will not only go after the art/accessory/gadget market but they are also looking at other more practical retail applications.  We think this broader and more balanced approach has merit.

Is New York the Center of Retail 3D Printing?

Are you seeing a trend here? Retail 3D Printing in the US seems to be focused on New Your City. There is a store in Pasadena called Deezmaker, but it is more hacker-centric selling more kits than home machines or direct to consumer printed objects.

Is this NYC bias because the market for consumer 3D printing is huge there? Or is it the art community? Or is it a tech-infiriority complex with the west coast?  A “we missed all this computer based stuff, so we are going to lead on this 3D printing thing” effect?

I suspect it has more to do with the proximity to Wall Street and the mass media than anything else.  Which may or may not be good for the additive manufacturing business.  It means cash and exposure for something that really captures the imagination of the general public. But is this a bubble that will grow and pop for the full industry? Or will it just be the retail side?  Only time will tell.

FDM Rules, but not Necessarily Good FDM.

One other take away from this retail trend is the dominance of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology that is making much of this possible. Although Shapeways seems to use almost all of the technologies, most of the startups that are trying to get the cost down and the volume up are using some sort of low-cost FDM technology. This is reflected in the lower costs and in the poor finished part quality that is seen on most of the websites. It is too bad more are not looking at technology Stratasys, the originators of FDM and producers of machines that make very high-quality parts.

stratasys_mojoI bring this up not only because PADT is a long time Stratasys reseller, but because the poor part quality might result in a black eye for the industry as a whole.  And the concern is not just about aesthetics, but also about part strength.  There is a lot of excitement over making replacement parts for appliances, toys, and consumer electronics.  Delamination in low-cost FDM parts is a real concern.

I also wonder if the merger of Stratasys and Objet might allow for the development of low cost and reliable 3D Printing based on the Objet inkjet printing approach as a compliment to FDM based systems.

What is the Future?

rasputinAnyone that is in the RP business knows that the use of additive manufacturing for prototyping, tooling, and even production is growing and getting better. Machines are faster, more accurate, and offer much better material choices. And the cost of systems that make strong, high-quality parts is coming down. So the non-retail side of this market should see continued strong growth.

The retail side of things is seeing a lot of buzz, a lot of press, and a lot of interest from average consumers.  As with any new market it is hard to guess where it is going.  But history has shown us that something like this that shows the potential of being a disruptive technology will have a big impact, and the market will whipsaw back and forth a few times before the technology finds its place and becomes mainstream.

For the record, just to see how close I get, I predict the following landscape for retail 3D Printing in five to ten years:

  • Two or three large on-line outlets, focused on art, fashion, and accessories as an outlet for small designers.
  • One or two large business supply/service chains that offer 3D Printing alongside traditional printing and copying using high quality FDM technlogy
  • A variety of specialty local almost neighborhood stores that offer duplication using 3D scanning and printers along with part printing.

Hopefully someone will remind me of this post in the future and we can see how far off I am.