Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Significance of the Cube to 3D Printing

One of the things that's nice about being a bit older is that you have some history to look back on to help put things into perspective.

Most people with even a remote interest in 3D printing probably don't remember the days of Heathkit, Allied Radio, Lafayette Radio and the early days of Radio Shack, then best known for parts and kits.  Nor, do they remember that the earliest sound systems and computers came in the form of kits.

But, there is a lesson to be learned from this ancient history.  And, that is that useful technologies often begin with hobbyists; but, don't really flourish until they begin to be delivered as fully assembled and finished consumer products.  We are probably at the end of the maker-hobbyist domination of the 3D printer market and are rapidly entering the dawn of the consumer 3D printer phase with all the good things that follow such a transition.

Let me explain.

I remember, vividly, in the early 1970's sitting in the living room of a friend as he proudly displayed the HUGE set of speakers he had built.  The cabinet was plywood with a maze of internal baffles to get the most out of the enormous woofers, mid-range and tweeter speakers all precisely arranged.  It had taken hours upon hours to build and it was clear that he thought he had produced the ultimate in Hi-Fi (High Fidelity) reproduction.  And, he probably had.  He was justly proud, since he was probably one of a hand full that could boast such fine acoustics.

Today, however, that same level of sound quality can be had by virtually anyone.  And, it doesn't require us to take up half the living room!  It comes in packages as small as 4"x4".  In fact, most automobiles probably offer better sound. 

Like many in that period of time, I built things like mixers, amplifiers and even what pretended to be a computer.  In both the audio and the computer worlds, I was there as the technology moved from the hobbyist stage to gaining wide acceptance in every facet of society.  Both "Hi-Fi" and computer power are so widely used and appreciated that we almost take them for granted.

Bridging the gap...

I mentioned Heathkit, Allied Radio and Lafayette Radio along with Radio Shack.  It is significant to note that of these four companies offering kits to hobbyists, only Radio Shack remains.  That is because Radio Shack, rather than resisting the inevitable market shift from hobbyist to consumer, embraced it.  The first Tandy computer was envisioned to be a kit.  But, fortunately, its primary designer convinced Radio Shack to release it as a fully built system named the TRS-80.  Radio Shack had, thus, bridged the gap.  As a company it had one foot in the electronic kit marketplace and with the other foot had stepped out of the kit builder space and into the domain of the average consumer.  One no longer had to know how to solder to learn to use a computer.

3D Systems has done a remarkable thing in bridging the gap when it comes to 3D printing.  First, they bridged the gap between the expensive high end 3D printing world that they already knew very well and put one foot into the hobbyist/builder market through their acquisition of some 3D kit manufacturers and a company called Desktop Factory, which was aiming to produce a small format 3D printer for under $5,000.  But, then they took another step across an even greater gap with the design and release of the Cube 3D Printer, which is clearly the first 3D printer designed from the ground up to be purchased for the home by anyone, including those without any building skills.

The Case for the Case and the Cartridge

I once had the privilege, back in the early 1980's of working with not one; but, many very creative people.   The genius that put together this incredibly innovative team was David Judd Nutting.  I've already mentioned one of his books and will, in a future post, talk about another.  But, one of the things that Dave writes about is product empathy.

The best way to describe product empathy is to say that it is the feeling most of us get when we see something like a favorite Corvette model or the Gull-Wing Mercedes.  It's that intangible thing of beauty that makes some designers household names to the point where we look forward to their next new designs.  It is what draws us to a favorite purse, pair of shoes or tea kettle.  It's an emotional response that all great designs elicit.

As far back as 6 years ago, I know that it was just a matter of time before someone, somewhere would finally deliver a 3D  printer design that had that quality of producing the level of product empathy to the point its appeal would go beyond the limits of the hobbyist market and take 3D printing to a whole new level of consumer acceptance.

I distinctly remember, on my visit to 3D Systems last February, saying, "That's it.  That's what I've been waiting for."  For the first time, I truly had product empathy for a 3D printer design and I knew that others would feel the same.  For me, it was all about the design of the case and cartridge.  It encapsulated the functionality and revolutionized the way 3D printers would be viewed by the public.

Again, there is precedence in history.  Audio tape only became widely used when the cassette was introduced.  Video tape only became accepted by consumers when the tape was put into a cartridge with the advent of the VHS recorders and camcorders.  Without both the case and the cartridge, the Cube would have been just another 3D printer that happened to be a very good value.

While I have no way of knowing the numbers of Cube printers that have been sold, I do know that the readership of this blog was steadily increasing and suddenly surged with the introduction of the Next-Gen Cube last month. I'm assuming that the product empathy factor was raised even further by the steps that 3D Systems took to become the first 3D printer to be approved by UL for the home and children.

Why is this important to the world.

As I have repeatedly said, for me, 3D printing is NOT about printing cheap plastic objects.  It is about helping us to realize, in tangible form, what our minds visualize.  It is, perhaps, the single most valuable tool I have ever encountered to increase creativity and actually build new brain connections in astounding ways.  It is no accident that Virginia Tech named their 3D printing center the Dreams Lab and that the DreamVendor, a 3D printing kiosk is in non-stop demand.

By recognizing the importance of product empathy, whether they called it that or not, 3D Systems has done what Radio Shack did for computers in 1977... moving the availability of computing power from the kit builders to the rest of us.  3D Systems has, forever, opened the door to 3D printing for all of us.  And, the result, I predict, will be an explosion of new levels of creativity in our young people and new products and opportunities that would never have been otherwise.

Ken Mammerella, a writer for the Wilmington News Journal started out his article on 3D printing with the words,  "Tom Meeks cannot contain his praise for 3-D printing".  He follows that with "Whitney Sample, a research design engineer at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, is equally effusive."  And, then includes these words, "Jack Gillespie, director of the Center for Composite Materials at the University of Delaware, believes 3-D printers promote education and innovation for children. It “really gets them to be creative at very early age,"

I am not alone in my belief that 3D printing will have significant impact on the creativity and lifelong outcomes of our children.  And, I am very thankful that 3D Systems had the vision to look well beyond their comfort zone of business-to-business marketing and not only design a 3D printer that we could afford; but, one that had that magic ingredient... product empathy.


  1. Hi Tom,
    I love your blog. As a fellow Cube user and writer, I visit you all the time and find both your content and videos both enlightening and entertaining. Your style is so authentic and enduring.
    For whatever reason, I have issues with what I consider Cube's lack of openness. In an attempt to seek an opposing viewpoint, I wanted to check your opinion. Your points are well made here.
    Although I still wish Cube would let out the reins on some issues, I can see what you mean about product empathy. Your website traffic is one indicator of that appeal. Overall sales of the Cube versus other desktop 3D printers is another. Amazon and TopTenReviews are good indicators of this quantifiable fact.
    Keep up the great work.
    Corey at

  2. I certainly agree that I would like 3D Systems to share some closely held information more freely. But, that is their decision. My decisions are based on the product itself and how it fits what I'm trying to do... which is to help people explore and expand their creativity through being able to print what they create with a 3D printer. And, the Cube has been MORE than appealing and successful by that measure.

    I loved your comments and observations! :)