The announcement that Windows 8.1 will support 3D printing has been greeted in the press with the usual fanfare deemed fit for any major Microsoft announcement. No doubt about it; Microsoft’s support of 3D printing is a big step towards credibility for personal 3D printing. One recalls what IBM did for personal computing.

But what does Microsoft intend with this announcement? One possibility: not that much! Microsoft casts a vote in favor of 3D printing, but adding an interface for an established OS; not such a biggie. It’s great promotion for personal 3D, but couldn’t have represented a huge investment for Microsoft. If 3D printing doesn’t take off, Microsoft simply utters a huge corporate “oh well.”

Conversely, Microsoft’s entry into personal 3D printing won’t immediately resolve the core problem for personal 3D printing: how to make a personal printer for under $1,000 that operates both at a reasonably fast speed and can produce products that are worth having.

So – apologies to Freud — what does Microsoft really want? A blogged comment from Shanen Boettcher, Microsoft’s startup business group general manager, offers a clue. “Making a 3D object on your PC will be as easy as writing a document in Word and sending it to print. Just as desktop publishing transformed how we write, we think desktop manufacturing will transform how we create,” says Mr. Boettcher (https://tinyurl.com/m586wjk).

The clue lies in the conflation of word processing (the reference to Word) and “desktop publishing.” At first, Mr. Boettcher seems to be saying the end game of personal 3D printing is the ubiquity of word processing. But then he says that 3D printing is more like desktop publishing.

This shift in focus is important; it reveals the split personality of the personal 3D printing industry right now. We want to believe in a future in which we are all “Makers.” It’s a cool idea and portends a huge new consumer industry. But the reality is that the skillsets and user-friendly software just aren’t there. Nor consumer interest? Few people grow their own tomatoes either. Fewer still, we suspect, will want to grow their own flatware!

More likely then that the valid business model for personal 3D printing will be more similar to desktop publishing. The user community for desktop publishing is made up of professionals: designers, multimedia developers, publishers, architects and so on. SmarTech believes that these are the kind of folks that will generate revenues for personal 3D printing too

Personal 3D printing is FrameMaker, not WordPerfect, as it were. No mass market in the sense that a Coca Cola would understand it. But a sizeable and addressable market nonetheless. And this is the market, we think that Microsoft is after for now.

0