Microsoft is a large software company that has traditionally dominated its chosen markets by providing key infrastructure for people and companies computing lives. In the age of the PC the company was the interface that you had with your device, no matter what the manufacturer (almost). Products such as Excel and PowerPoint define many people’s working lives. In the internet age the company has seemed comparatively lost. Bing never coming close to catching Google, .NET Passport, Hotmail, Silverlight, the Zune (remember the Zune?) and other initiatives being out maneuvered by nimbler, cooler rivals. Meanwhile we must not forget that Microsoft spent billions and many years building a gaming company centered around the Xbox. The company has the resources and patience to endure failure. After years of being derided and considered the epitome of a boring closed company outshone by more open source or start up companies something quite incredible has happened, Microsoft is on the cusp of being cool again.
Releases of new surface laptops and desktops who are stylish and have their own sense of style, coupled with VR advances and new software (and more than a little PR) has let excitement build around the company.
For our industry, the Redmond giant looms large as well.
What is Microsoft doing in 3D printing?
The 3MF file format was created by Microsoft as an alternative to the open AMF format and an upgrade to STL. The company formed a consortium consisting of HP, Materialise, Ultimaker, XYZ Printing, Mcor, Dassault and others to implement the new file format. 3MF makes 3D printing more extensible and will let us work with multiple colors and textures. It also has provisions built in for DRM.
3D Scan is a microsoft app that was created to let people use the Kinect to 3D scan.
3D Builder is Microsoft’s central app for editing and looking at 3D printing files.
Minecraft is a huge gaming community where people individually build many millions of objects in the game world. Minecraft has made 3D creation fun and accessible and the in game items are 3D printable. In terms of sheer users Minecraft is responsible for creating the largest number of 3D content by consumers.
Microsoft HoloLens lets you do many things but one of them is 3D model in virtual space. Creation by touching in VR is a way to let many more people 3D model than have been previously able to do so.
Microsoft previously partnered with Netfabb to offer an online STL repair service. This STL tool was hosted on the Azure platform. The tool is still live but since Netfabb was acquired by Autodesk the Netfabb branding has been dropped as indeed has any mention of Netfabb. Now Microsoft is partnering with Materialise to offer a cloud repair solution. Materialise and i.materialise will also offer 3D printing services to Micosoft’s customers.
Microsoft’s new Surface Studio features a tiltable touch screen, a scroll wheel you can place on the screen to give you a palette or other UI features and seems like an interesting tool for 3D modeling and graphic design.
Microsoft has also busily been constructing drivers for 3D printers. They have added spooling and queing functionality to let people build their software on top of theirs and integrate with 3D printers.
3D printing has now been integrated in Windows 10 natively and via APIs.
Paint 3D is MS Paint but it lets you create things in 3D. It comes replete with Remix3D an online 3D model database. You can also use your MineCraft creations in paint.
Initially people speculated that Microsoft was jumping on the 3D printing bandwagon out of PR considerations. Their effort in retrospect has been more fundamental than that. Microsoft is creating standards for 3D printing, connecting 3D printers with software, connecting app developers with 3D printing and letting people create in 3D. The company has through hardware and software maneuvered itself into a key position in the 3D printing space.
It seems to be building the end to end tooling for all 3D printing software from device to file creation. At MakePrintable we are also doing this. We are creating the easiest and simplest way to go from any 3D file to a repaired and 3D printable file. We want to be the method by which everyone in an open and free way prints. Through GamePrint we want to be the default way any game geometry gets turned into a 3D print. Essentially our only direct competitors are Materialise, Autodesk and Microsoft. Materialise is the dominant player in 3D printing software letting almost the entire market manage their service bureaus, nest files and optimize builds in an industrial setting. Materialise Magics is used to repair STLs and inspect files by companies around the world and is the dominant package used by almost the entire industry. Autodesk is through Netfabb, 360, 123D, Instructables and other tools building what it hopes is a SAAS Android ecosystem for 3D printing. Now the creators of Windows and the Paperclip look to be making serious movement in the space. The company seems to be concentrating its efforts on the last creative mile, connecting the consumer to custom creations.
Changing Consumer Behavior is difficult.
There was a lot of hype about 3D printing on the desktop. Many oversold the capabilities of their machines and downplayed the difficulties. This has lead to the media now becoming disillusioned with 3D printing even though the industry continues to grow by 30% a year and many start ups have doubled year on year. As machines have gotten better the desktop 3D printing proposition has become more valuable. In about five years we’ve gone from machines that almost never worked to uptimes in the 90%. Throughout this process there is a key element that has been overlooked.
People can’t 3D model. It takes 2000 hours or more to learn how to do CAD or 3D modeling well. Even simple tools such as Sketchup require a few hours of getting your bearings in 3D space and the tool itself. Of the approximately 650,000 desktop 3D printers available worldwide only about 200,o00 are in the hands of actual consumers. The vast majority of these are engineers or software developers who are interested in the technology themselves and have skills such as CAD already. With TinkerCAD, 3Dtin and other tools I’ve done workshops with kids of ten or older to teach them how to 3D model. This is totally possible. On the other hand trying to motivate an adult to learn a new skill is difficult.
Connecting 3D Worlds.
Whatever the invention or technological development changing consumer behavior is going to be one of the main barriers to a technology’s adoption. As adults many of us simply do not create. We perceive risks to putting ourselves out there and prefer to outsource our design decisions to brands. We are worried about what others will think of our creations and instead consume mass made branded things. To change this 3D modeling must be akin to sketching idly on a notepad. It must be easy, low effort and without a blank canvas problem. Meaning that the tool should not intimidate you with endless possibility but rather encourage you to play. Minecraft is such as tool. I think that Microsoft hopes that Studio and the Hololens will also be tools that will encourage play. By letting consumers create, not only 3D prints but virtual goods, customized clothing, clothing they try on, consumer electronic items and letting them create experiences for themselves Microsoft seems to want to be the last mile between the real 3D world and a virtual 3D world. Simultaneously by placing themselves at this point they are at a key intersection between people who wish to create, buy, try on, experiment, enjoy and consume real products.
Embrace, Extend and?
Famously in the past Microsoft has adopted the Embrace, Extend and Extinguish model. They first make standards, then they extend on top of those standards to differentiate and fragment the offerings and then they finally become the dominant player in the market. Their play with 3MF is a very public way of setting standards as is the large scale integration of 3D printing in Windows 10. Their peripherals seem to be the first initial steps into extension already. Meanwhile Autodesk continues to build its own ecosystem. SAP and Siemens are coming up with a PLM to CAD to Printing offering of their own. Apart from encouraging users to adopt Microsoft tools to become their default way of creating in 3D (Which will also see them pitted against Google and Facebook’s offerings) and to extend 3D scanning, machine vision and modeling capabilities of their phones (which again sees them pitted against Google but also Apple and Amazon) acquisitions would be a way forward for them. We can think what we want about Word, Excel or PowerPoint but it is in becoming the de facto creation tools that Microsoft has seen much of its success. The other is by becoming a de facto standard in operating systems or enterprise software. A logical next step for them would be either to acquire Autodesk ($15b market cap) or Materialise ($400m market cap). I think that the Materialise acquisition would be the most logical and cost effective step for them. It would give them a key hold on enterprise software for manufacturing using 3D printing. It would let them acquire a key piece of existing 3D printing infrastructure. If we consider the alternatives they are all much more expensive. A battle to become the default VR/AR input device could cost billions and many years. Phone wars have many large companies battling it out for survival. I’m guessing that a Materialise purchase would happen sooner or later. I’m also guessing that Microsoft is here to stay and will play an important role in the future of 3D printing. Blue print of death? Or Microsoft Word for Stuff? What do you think?