This week during the Inside 3D Printing conference in Chicago, Microsoft senior program manager Jesse McGatha expanded on the company's previous announcement that Windows 8.1 would support 3D printing. The company said at the end of June that plug-and-play support for 3D printing would transform how consumers create just like how desktop publishing transformed the way everyone wrote. If anything, the company will be ready for a market that will supposedly reach $3.1 billion by 2016.
According to McGatha, around 70 percent of the makers and researchers who are experimenting with 3D printing are doing so on a Windows-based machine. Because of this number, it made sense for Microsoft to make 3D printing a "commonplace thing" in Windows 8. But in order for 3D printing to catch on, Microsoft will face some "outstanding challenges" that will need to be resolved like the speed and quality of the printing process and products.
McGatha provided a demo of a sample 3D printing app for Windows, reportedly making the process look similar to that of printing a document in Microsoft Word. He sent a file to a 3D printer without leaving the app by choosing the printer from a list of connected devices. The app then displayed a user interface that correlated with that specific printer (which apparently changes for each connected device). In a nutshell, Microsoft has "dumbed down" the 3D printing process to make it more in line with the printing consumers are already accustomed to using.
Unfortunately, the release of Windows 8.1 won't mean a sudden explosion of 3D printing despite Microsoft's attempts to make it extremely easy. Prices of 3D printers are beginning to drop, but the roadblock will be the consumers' need to learn CAD or 3D design software. Unless there's a solution developed to make design easier and on-the-fly, many consumers may never use a 3D printer.
"Once you have that [3D design], now you still have to print it out, and depending upon the consumer's skill set, it could be a very difficult process of trial-and-error getting the printer to produce the part that they envisioned," said Gartner research director Pete Basiliere. "Not that the printer is incapable, but there may be need for support structures and other elements in the design that, if the consumer isn't proficient with the software, it leads to a bad print."
As Microsoft pointed out last month, 3D printing has been around for a while but has mainly been used by car makers, aerospace companies, toy makers, and hardware companies to make prototypes. This includes using big, very expensive machines, and a variety of materials from plastic to metal. Yet the company believes, as shown with Windows 8.1, that 3D printing will definitely go mainstream.
"This includes all of the things you’d expect from Windows: plug-n-play support for printers, enabling apps to seamlessly submit 3D print jobs, understanding 3D file formats, and connecting lots of apps with lots of hardware to deliver an end-to-end solution for customers," the company said. "We want this to be so simple that anyone can set up their own table-top factory."
What people will do with 3D printing, Microsoft predicts, is make custom creations like an off-the-shelf trophy, a salad box replacement for a refrigerator, or a new hinge for a door. Again, consumers would need to master – to some degree – CAD or some other vector-based 3D software solution. That of course is on top of purchasing an expensive 3D printer like 3D Systems’ Cube 3D printer for $1,299 and similar solutions.