Lessons in Vendor Lock-in: 3D Printers

The open nature of the consumer 3D printing industry has made for a much
more consumer-friendly world.

This article continues a series that aims to illustrate some
of the various problems associated with vendor lock-in. In past articles, I’ve given examples showing how proprietary systems
from disposable
razors
to messaging
apps
have replaced more open systems
leading to vendor lock-in. This article highlights an
ecosystem that, so far, has largely avoided vendor
lock-in and describes the benefits that openness has provided members of
the community, myself included: 3D printing.

I’ve been involved in 3D printing for several years. I’ve owned a number
of printers, and I’ve seen incredible growth in the area from an incredibly geeky
fringe to the much more accessible hobby that it is today. I’ve also
written quite a few articles in Linux Journal about 3D printing, including
a multi-part series on the current state of 3D printing hardware and
software (see the Resources section for links to Kyle’s previous Linux
Journal
articles on 3D printing). I even gave a keynote at SCALE 11x on the free software and
open hardware history of 3D printing and how it mirrors the history of
the growth of Linux distributions.

The Birth of 3D Printing in the Hobbyist Market

One interesting thing about the hobbyist 3D printing market is that it
was founded on free software and open hardware ideals starting with the
RepRap project. The idea behind that project was to design a 3D printer
from off-the-shelf parts that could print as many of its own parts as
possible (especially more complex, custom parts like gears). Because
of this, the first generation of 3D printers were all homemade using
Arduinos, stepper motors, 3D-printed gears and hardware you could find
in the local hardware store.

As the movement grew, a few individuals started small businesses selling
3D printer kits that collected all the hardware plus the 3D printed parts
and electronics for you to assemble at home. Later, these kits turned
into fully assembled and supported printers, and after the successful
Printrbot kickstarter campaign, the race was on to create cheaper and
more user-friendly printers with each iteration. Sites like Thingiverse
and YouMagine allowed people to
create and share their designs, so even if
you didn’t have any design skills yourself, you could download and print
everyone else’s. These sites even provided the hardware diagrams for some
of the more popular 3D printers. The Free Software ethos was everywhere
you looked.

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