Even the biggest fan of 3D printers will admit that they still aren't so easy and inexpensive to have a place in every home. But technologies are evolving - and prices getting lower - so fast that your nearest 3D printer could be, if not on your desktop, just a few blocks away: in the house of someone who is an early adopter or simply thinks that current 3D printers fit his/her needs.

If only this printer could be shared, right? Fact is, maybe it could. Just check if it's already on 3D Hubs, a Dutch project that's been described as the Airbnb of 3D printing: a platform connecting who wants to sell his/her 3D printer's underused capacity and who wants to print something but not through a traditional 3D printing service or a FabLab. What makes 3D Hubs vastly different from services like AirBnB is a strong sense of community: who owns a 3D printer and who designs objects to print share the same passion for a new philosophy of production. The platform's rapid growth comes from much more than simply earning a little money or having your object printed faster than by a third party service.

3D Hubs staff in a not-so-official photo

3D Hubs was born in 2013 but its founders, Bram de Zwart and Brian Garret, started imagining their project years ago: "For five years Brian and I - told us Bram de Zwart - we've been intrigued about the promise of local production and how this could be made possible with 3D printing. A few years ago we figured that by unlocking the idle capacity of the 3D printers already out there, we could suddenly build a global production network that would give anyone access to local 3D printers and therefore the possibility to start creating".

"Local" is the main keyword for 3D Hubs. In its simplest sense, it underlines how a 3D printer becomes the center of a community: who owns the printer and those who print, but also other people generically interested in 3D printing, self-production and Makers Movement. A community that can start small but has the energy to grow, attracting more people and showing 3D printing's disruptive potential to anyone.

But "local" has also a deeper sense: creating local communities based on 3D printing means also showing that production processes can change, become more personalized and be near the final users of the printed objects. In the medium/long run, it means also to create small local economies otherwise impossibile. Nothing new? Not if you are (or try to be) a Maker, or if you know something about Makers Movement, but for "the rest of us" can be a surprise.

A Hub's page, with some details on what can be printed and how much it will cost

3D Hubs built a database of more than 2,200 3D printers spread all over the world. If you have a printer and want to offer its printing capacity, you have just to register the device on 3D Hubs website, describing its specifications, which materials you can print and how much you want to charge for printing. Done that, you become a local printing hub. In other "sharing economy" services that's enough to start but not in 3D Hubs, for its community sense: a city with just a few hubs can't create and sustain a strong local printing community, so it stays "locked", with its printers listed but unavailable, until it develops at least ten hubs. After that - and, usually, a party - the city is "unlocked" and its community starts printing.

"We want to build strong local communities - says Bram - in which people can share their 3D printing passion and knowledge in a time where still many need to learn about the possibilities and constraints. With a minimum number of 3D printer owners needed in a city we want to encourage people to build such communities and at the same time increase choice for local users in terms of materials, colors, quality, size and finishes".

From a user's standpoint, things are simple. You upload yout 3D model file, look for an hub in your area, choose the most appropriate and place your order. The hub can accept or decline it, if it's accepted you are requested to pay. When your object is printed, you and the hub arrange the pick-up, meeting in person and (hopefully) creating a new relationship based on a common interest. 3D Hubs platform tries to make the printing transaction as smooth as possibile. For example, customers' 3D file are automatically checked for inconsistencies and payments are finalized four days after pick-up date, so if something goes wrong both parties (the hub and the customer) have the time to resolve their issues.

On 3D Hubs you'll find mostly dektop 3D printers, commercial ones are of course allowed but aren't the platform focus. Bigger, explains Bram, is not necessarily better: "We see the quality difference between desktop and industrial 3D printers becoming smaller, but industrial printers can still be useful for larger sized objects or materials such as metal. Whether a 3D printer is operated by a private individual or registered company does not directly say something about the quality or service. We often see private individuals taking the extra mile to exceed the expectations of their customer. This comes out of their passion for 3D printing and not necessarily financial gains. With a review system recently integrated into our platform the best 3D printing locations will float up".

3D Hubs booth at the London 3D Printshow, November 2013

Those 2,200 printers registered in less than one year ("world’s largest network of 3D printers", says Bram) prove that 3D Hubs is a good idea. But it's just the beginning: "We are not sitting still of course, we have a team of over 10 people making sure that we make 3D Hubs ever more intelligent and community-focused. We should get wider groups of people to 3D print if we want to localize a larger share of the global production volume. This is something that we’ll work on in the coming year".


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