Microsoft Makes 3-D Printing As Simple As Clicking "Print"

Windows 8.1 will be the first OS to provide 3-D printers native support. What does that mean to you? The app market is poised for its first 3-D printing explosion.

To be honest, 3-D printing technology just isn’t there yet for consumers. It’s expensive. It’s relatively lousy. And it takes a slew of skills—from technical to artistic—to produce anything worth printing in the first place. So specialists, like designers and engineers, can enjoy its rapid fabrication, and everyone else is left behind.

Today, Microsoft announced a crucial step to empower the next wave of 3-D printer adoption. Windows 8.1 will be the first OS to support 3-D printing natively on desktops and tablets. "Our thinking was, let’s make this as easy as writing and printing a Word document," says Shanen Boettcher, general manager at Microsoft’s Startup Business Group.

And that’s really the appeal of Microsoft’s pitch. The company tells me that 70% of 3-D printing is already done on Windows machines, but the problem is that it’s a clunky process. You have to design an image in a program like CAD, then output it to specialty printer software. From there you can start the glitch-prone printing process. Microsoft worked with hardware vendors—including MakerBot, 3D Systems, and Autodesk—to build the API glue that can allow any developer to build 3-D creation apps with a one-touch printing option. Just as iOS makes it easy for developers to plug in a scheduler or push notifications to iPhone apps, so, too, can Windows developers instantly support the relevant market of 3-D printers.

And it’s these developers that Microsoft is banking on creating a new wave of 3-D design software that can be more creative than technical.

Imagine if you could build an object in a game, then one-button print it in real life. In Windows 8.1, that’s not an unrealistic scenario. Shot taken from Minecraft.

"My kids have no problem building 3-D models in Minecraft all day long. How can you unlock 3-D creation for anybody to be able to do with a touch screen and their finger?" Boettcher asks. "To me that’s what’s really interesting."

"I hope there’s a whole spectrum of apps. We might see a picture frame you just want to put your name on. Custom napkin rings for your dinner party. Maybe there’s a trophy app for your kid’s soccer teams. In the art world, maybe people will make a virtual potter’s wheel to create a 3-D object quickly and personalize it."

On one hand, the discrete apps could begin to add up in the somewhat obnoxious iOS fart-button way. On the other, 3-D printing could make Windows 8 app development more enticing than it’s been, and it’s a field so young that we could use more software Darwinism than less. In fact, even if it fails to take off, Microsoft’s maneuver could nudge the rest of the industry to follow suit.

I still don’t think that 3-D printing is for everyone, but native Windows support makes for a nice start.

[Image: Printer via Shutterstock, Minecraft via Minecraft Gallery]

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  • Matt Harris


    Depending on the 3D printer, that worked on Windows 3.1, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows 7, Mac OS X, Irix, Solaris, and multiple distros of Linux. It may have even run on Amega, Next Step, and Mac OS 9. All Windows 8.1 did was pick some hardware and include device drivers on the Windows base install disk. The more compelling story for Windows will come when they stop pretending to invent things that have been around for 5 to 20 years, stop adding layers of candy to tools that already work, and build unique capabilities that simply enable knowledge creation and use across all media types.

  • Whea7

    Now we just need the public to learn how to create functional, meaningful 3D objects.

    Which, frankly, is a whole hell of a lot more complex than typing up a document or printing out some clipart.  In fact, its an entire dimension more complex, and has a greater negative impact when wasted.

    Plus, what kinds of programs is this feature going to be implemented to?  Microsoft may be working with 3D printing companies, but Microsoft doesn't make the software that outputs to the 3D printers.  Are they going to try to make the software developers adopt their "3D printing API"?  Best of luck, Microsoft - these developers struggle every year to keep their programs stable, and if your print API has any bugs, consumers will likely curse the CAD software, and not Windows - something that I don't think the software developers will be a fan of.

    Ehhh... all that is to say, "I'll believe it when I see it."

  • Rlindabury

    At least it's a start. They're paving the way. It's not going to be perfect straight out of the gate but for us, as users, I think this is a good move. The technology will only advance and become more standard allowing more and more users access.

    As a 3D animator and designer, I welcome this. Software developers may be able to use their support of the API as a selling point. That's how these things are advanced for future use.

  • Mark Wilson

    Particularly great point about creating functional, meaningful objects. It's a big reason I think 3-D printers are a hobbyist/crafting product for most domestic use cases. 

  • i8kermit

    Sigh. I am starting to get very tired writers who apparently have never used a 3D printer, or even talked to someone who has, writing about the ease of it and how everyone is gonna be making their own iPhone cases blah blah blah.

    The complexity with 3D printing has nothing to do with drivers. As Boregardless said, you've got to orient a model, set up the supports, choose fill and resolution, all this other stuff before clicking print. Personally, with a high quality machine (not MakerBot, Cube, or any of those. I'm talking a Stratasys or Objet), I never have glitchy prints, if properly set up. The glitch prone falls within the setup, and I find it hard to believe that Windows will manage to figure out the best way to orient an item to get it to work for what I have in mind. My $5k pack of engineering software can't figure that out. And you're telling me it'll be baked into to Windows?! Right.

  • Mark Wilson

    1. I actually have used a 3-D printer. 2. You just explained that you never have glitches because you have $5k in engineering software (that does or doesn't work?) and, clearly, expertise and diligence beyond any consumer 3. If the software industry has proven anything, it's that when big companies take hold of specialist niche digital products, they get cheaper and better (it's why we don't need photoshop to edit images anymore, or an avid to cut a movie)

  • Boregardless

    3D printing is relatively easy, if fraught with issues of rough surface finish, strength, limited resins (or stainless or titanium if you have big bucks), post mold sanding/sizing, sometimes painting and slow build times.

    Creation of 3D models is something else entirely.

    Reasonably good 3D model software like AutoCAD or Solidworks starts about $5000.  To get good at constructing 3D models, assumes you are already knowledgable in some engineering concepts & then figure on spending 4-6 months getting used to the tools.  

  • Mford610

    Yes, the learning curve for "mechanically-accurate" 3D modeling software almost forms a vertical cliff. It's simple enough to make primitives-based objects in SketchUp or Blender (which is actually not so simple), but to create interlocking constructions that actually function is much (much) more difficult to do than to write about.