Gartner says lock-in technology will replace open source philosophy for 3D printers – and that should make everyone angry


Not too long ago, I had an interesting conversation with a sales assistant at a major South African high street tech retailer. Admiring the 3D printer which was on sale among the Nespresso machines and laptops, I noted the fact that it used a proprietary cartridge for its plastic filament.

“How much are replacements,” I asked, curious to see how it compared to the R300 a roll I usually paid for a kilo of PLA sprue for my homemade RepRap. Ah, he replied, we don’t sell those. Given that a roll of filament lasts anything from two weeks to six months, depending on how often you print, I wonder how many of those R20 000 printers are now lying unused for want of feedstock?

If you believe the latest report on 3D printing by analysts at Gartner, there’s going to be a lot more over the next few years. It says that while the industry is set to boom and that the number of printers sold will double every year from now until 2018, as the technology matures it will become more like the 2D print industry where there are no user-serviceable parts and money is made primarily through locking people in to proprietary “ink” cartridges.

“This trend will accelerate as the market consisting primarily of early adopters who grew up with an open-source approach without lock-ins evolves into a market in which average consumers dominate,” says Gartner research VP Pete Basiliere in a press statement, “While the early adopters will rage at the perversion of the 3D printer open-source ethos, the vast majority of mainstream consumers will demand the simple and consistent operation that ‘plug and print’ can provide them.”

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Early adopters certainly will rage. The creator of the RepRap project, Dr Adrian Bowyer, dreamed of self-replicating printers using plastic recycled from milk bottles and the like for a self-sustainable technology in which one printer could manufacture many others which would in turn make stuff from whatever is lying around. It’s a dream that’s the very antithesis of modern capitalism, in which printers are cheap and plentiful and beneficial to all.

Even today, most of the big name off-the-shelf printers like MakerBot and Printrbot – and South Africa’s own Robobeast and RepRap Morgan – are designed so that owners can print spare parts and modify or improve them themselves. It’s all about giving back to the community which has inspired, contributed and made possible the sophisticated machines we have today through years of experimentation and error, for the most part unpaid.

Indeed, get inside the 3D printing community and you’ll find it goes further than that. The conservationalists’ mantra is “reduce, reuse, recycle” – in that order. And Bowyer’s vision has always been of a world where we no longer throw away consumer goods because a trivial part is broken, we just print a replacement bit and carry on using it as before. That’s the antithesis of modern business methods, however, which require endlessly growing cycles of disposal and consumption to work.

It’s because of this that Gartner’s future is likely to pass if we don’t try and stop it now. In this future, big tech brands take over and fight to keep prices high by introducing new ‘features’ rather than continue to reduce the off-the-shelf cost of new printers. They lock people into artificially incompatible designs that are non-user serviceable. Even as raw feedstock prices drop due to demand, the move to proprietary cartridges that only fit one type of printer rather than generic spools of filament will keep end user costs high.

Gartner argues that this future must come to pass it must as general consumers want “plug and print” capabilities, rather than the somewhat complicated set-up procedures so far associated with 3D printers. But that alone should make anyone involved with startups and innovation rage, not just 3D printers.

The sad thing is that many of the features the report says are necessary – automated bed levelling and heated build chambers – have been around for ages in open source designs, precisely because of the open source philosophy that underpins the 3D printer community.

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It’s not just early adopters who should rage at this. Anyone involved in entrepreneurship and innovation should too. The rapid adoption of 3D printers – and I am talking about consumer-grade extrusion based ones rather than industrial laser sintering or similar – has been made possible because of the openness of the community. As Gartner acknowledges, dozens of companies have sprung up selling cheap printers based off of Bowyer and early collaborators like the Polish engineer Josef Prusa. South Africa boasts at least three home-grown 3D printer designs and profitable businesses which have been able to launch thanks to the freedom to riff off of RepRap. Countless schools and colleges have kitted out hackerspaces to teach their wards about future engineering at relatively little cost.

Indeed, you have to go no further than Centurion to see why the argument at the heart of the Gartner vision is wrong. Not only does Richard van As’ RoboBeast offer high quality, low cost prints, it’s so ‘plug-and-print’ that he’s been distributing them in some of the world’s least connected places with the lowest levels of education to produce 3D printed prosthetics in the most extreme conditions in the form of RoboHand.

According to this report, the number of 3D printers sold annually is set to increase from 108 151 machines globally this year to 2.3 million in 2018, and the industry will be worth some R69billion by then too. If mainstream consumers demand “simple and consistent operation” before they’ll adopt 3D printing, as Basiliere says, the shame of it is that it’s already here.

And it comes with cartridges you can fill yourself.

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