3D printing: it’s the software and the wetware, not the hardware

5_3DPrintedBrainThe technology of 3D printing looks like magic, but in the end it’s the old-fashioned software and wetware that make the difference.

The hardware that makes 3D-printing work is pretty cool. Making accessible something that can translate computer code into three-dimensional instructions is clever stuff. But, if you have a 3D-printer, you soon come to realise that the hardware is not the truly clever bit. You can take any 3D design and print it out, but soon you want to create your own designs and it is there that things get really gnarly.

I’ve written previously about the trials and tribulations of setting up a 3D-printer. And in this sense it’s entirely analogous to the early days of the, now ubiquitous, 2D paper printers. Suddenly every man and his dog had access to facilities only previously available to professional publishing houses. And suddenly the facilities were available to pour out badly-edited, awfully-typeset, poorly-designed drivel. You see the printer is only the primary hurdle; once that is surpassed the next hurdles all involve a degree of training and skill which is not widely available.

OK, so you have mastered the hardware. You’ve fiddled and installed and modified until your 3D-printer will print the file you send it. Then you look around for cool things to print. You go to Thingiverse and find a variety of stuff – whether it be a TARDIS, or a vase, or a fish, or a gun. That’s cool stuff and you have fun making some prints. But, again harking back to the dawn of 2D printing, this is like you printing out Shakespeare – it’s only cool while you are ground-breaking, while only you have the technology to do it.

Suddenly you realise that there are many people who can print out models made by others. The very fact of printing is not enough. You want to CREATE.

And now things get really interesting. The first hurdle is still not the one it should be. The first hurdle ought to be whether you have the skills and creativity. But right now that’s not the case. The first hurdle is still can you navigate the software.

There are a wide range of 3D modeling software packages available and almost universally they are awful for the amateur. Now, some of them are powerful and some of them are pretty, but what none of them do is make it easy for you to give this idea that’s burning a hole in your head reality. The learning curve is… significant. To, once again, hark back to the 2D world the issue is that there’s a lot of professional desktop publishing software out there, but it’s something like Microsoft Word which makes it easy for the untrained to produce a professional-looking document.

Except maybe there is something like that. Tinkercad is as close as you can get. It’s browser-based, which is amazing in itself. It’s intuitive enough that you can take a fair stab at it without even touching its, rather good, tutorial videos. Does it do everything the serious, professional programs do? Nope, it dopes not. But honestly I can’t work out how to use most of the professional, serious programs, let alone how to utilize their more advanced features. Tinkercad allows me to take shapes and manipulate them and turn them into something real. With Tinkercad I can invest an hour and come out with a toothbrush holder. With every single, competitor that hour would have lead me to fruitlessly scratching the surface of what what the program was capable of doing.

After fiddling with Tinkercad for a short time you actually can produce your own 3D objects. It’s not going to be the tool to model the revolutionary combustion engine or a statue that leaves Michelangelo in the shade, but for most of us that’s more than we can aspire to. If you want to create your own, and I use this example pointedly, toothbrush holder – this is the tool to start with.

Tinkercad is free. It’s just been bought by Autodesk which means it probably has a future. And it is genuinely useful and effective. If you’re a professional it’s not for you. But if you’re a professional you can afford to invest the time and energy into learning a professional program. If you’re an enthusiast, Tinkercad ticks all the boxes.

That, of course, leaves the elephant in the room, the unresolved issue. You have the hardware to print, you have the software to create – what does that leave? It leaves the creativity, the imagination, the skill. And as yet no combination of hardware and software can compensate for those – for the wetware, your brain.

Image: 3D printed chocolate brain, Inition.

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