What Does Windows 8.1 Support for 3D Printers Mean?

One of the features of the just-launched Windows 8.1 is built-in support for 3D printers. Microsoft has added an API (application programming interface) that makes 3D printers work just like ordinary printers: Select Print from the menu, and the object is printed. 

What does 3D printer support mean?

At the moment, the software that works with 3D printers talks directly to the printer, but the new approach creates a software layer between them. You will still need 3D software to design and build the objects to print, but the design software doesn’t need to know anything about the 3D printer. In the same way that Microsoft Word doesn’t need an update every time you buy a new inkjet printer, the new approach could mean that any 3D design software could work with any 3D printer. 

MORE: 3D Printer Buyer's Guide

However, Microsoft is relying on the manufacturers of 3D printers to create the driver software that make their particular printers work with Windows 8.1. 

How does 3D printing support in Windows 8.1 work?

Windows 8.1 will handle 3D printers like it does ordinary printers: You plug the printer in, install the driver and other software, and the device is ready to use. To print an object, you select Print from the menu in your 3D application, such as 123D Make or Seamless3d, and select the 3D printer as the destination. The driver software then processes the digital object, creating the code that the 3D printer needs to make it.

Will Windows 8.1 work with any 3D printer?

To work with Windows 8.1, both the application you are printing from and the 3D printer need to support the new API. At the moment, no apps or 3D printers do. In response to a question about availability, a Microsoft spokesman told Tom's Guide, "Drivers are delivered [as downloads] via Windows Update...Drivers are being tested for publication on Windows Update now, and apps will follow the general availability of supported devices." In other words, we don't yet know when software is coming. 

Can I control the 3D printing process in Windows 8.1?

The 3D printing capability in Windows 8.1 uses the same approach as for paper printers. It can give the user full access to the details of the printing process, in the same way that a software driver for a paper printer allows you to determine items such as paper size, type and orientation and image quality. However, the printer manufacturer that writes the driver, not Microsoft, controls the options. The manufacturer can hide or put as many controls in there as it wants.

Will this replace standalone 3D printer software like MakerWare or Repetier?

It could, but these programs will still be available for users who want them. In a recent interview on the Windows Extreme Blog, Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot (who worked with Microsoft to create the API) said that the aim was to make the process invisible, like it is for paper printing. So, the typical user would hit print and wait for the product to be ready, and would not care about the technical details. However, those who want to control the process in more detail could use programs like MakerWare or Repetier. 

Will MakerWare and Repetier still work on Windows 8.1?

Yes. We installed both programs on the version of Windows 8.1 that was released recently, and had no issues using either to print to a MakerBot Replicator 2.

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Richard Baguley has been working as a technology writer and journalist since 1993. As well as contributing to Tom's Guide, he writes for Cnet, T3, Wired and many other publications.