Taking in the Landscape
As I began preparing for my TCT Live 2011 keynote address, “3D Printer Landscape,” I looked at the panorama of 3D printing through the eyes of the newly initiated. That simple act of taking in the sights reminded me of the great diversity in this industry and the impact it has on each one of you.
In its evolution from rapid prototyping, 3D printing has grown, expanded, migrated and transformed. It has evolved from a single technology for prototyping to an industry with many processes, techniques, applications and markets. Using the liberal, all-encompassing definition, 3D printing offers machines that range from €350 kits to €750,000 integrated systems.
These machines use everything from plastics to metals and ceramics to sand; their core processes span extruding, jetting, melting and photo-curing. This breadth spawns a wide range of applications and users. 3D printing is at home in architecture, media, healthcare and manufacturing. It is a tool for students, artists, doctors and engineers.
Re-awakened to this simple truth, I realised that I can’t describe 3D printing in terms of a single landscape to an audience of neophytes and seasoned veterans. That would be as worthwhile as a description of our planet as a single terrain. Beyond earth under our feet, there is little in common between seashores, countrysides, mountains and deserts. And the more I thought about it, 3D printing might have even less in common across its expanse. Its diversity may be more like that between Earth, moon and Mars. Or so it seemed in a recent Additive Manufacturing Branding Initiative (AMBI) meeting.
In the AMBI’s CEO Summit, there was no consensus when members were asked to select the most desirable market segment. There were only two choices: maker or commercial. Makers are the consumers (individuals) that want to print parts for personal use. Commercial represents the businesses that use 3D printing for corporate activities. Some envision a future where 3D printers are in every home. Others pin their growth to an increase in adoption and applications throughout the business world.
On the surface, this may appear to be a divisive issue. It’s not. The lack of consensus is an indication of how expansive 3D printing has become. Leveraging both sides will result in phenomenal growth, which will create even more diversity. This, in turn, will translate into more options and more landscapes, which will make this industry that much more perplexing and confusing.
But a bit of confusion and some difference in opinions is a reasonable trade-off when we consider the number of choices that we now have. Like the landscapes of the Earth, there is something for everyone and opportunity for all. Great diversity in machines and applications has given us variety. Many will find solutions that are spot-on for their needs. For those that have to make do or go without, just give the industry a bit more time.
In the coming years, there will be something for everyone. Advances will give us technology that is suited for everyone from toddlers to technologists and tinkerers to toolmakers. This is what will make 3D printing universal. The expanse in machines and applications is what will make 3D printing as familiar as 2D printing. It won’t be in every home, but it will be understood by all.
Overwhelming isn’t it? Painting a picture that broad and that bright inspires awe and fuels innovative thoughts. However, that picture also muddies the waters and baffles the mind.
To avoid confusion, focus on the one landscape that makes the most sense for your needs. As I intend to do in my keynote, focus on a segment that you can isolate. Without that distinction, it is impossible to make any generalisations about the technology and what it can do. Without boundaries, you will find that 3D printing is easy and complicated; fast and slow; cheap and expensive.
Across the 3D printing spectrum, each of these characterisations is a true reflection on the technology. So, everything you hear and everything you read can be absolutely correct while being 100 percent wrong. Any characterisation of 3D printing can be true in one context and inaccurate in another. This means that it is up to you to filter all the facts and sort all of the information in the context of your intents, applications and needs.
It is up to you to question expert opinions to determine if they are true for your situation, especially predictions of the future. While I’d love to be the exception, I am not. So you need to questions my statements, opinions and predictions as much — maybe more — that those from other pundits. However, there is one exception: we can’t predict the future of 3D printing.
I believe that it is a given that 3D printing has a promising future with lots of growth potential. Yet, I don’t think that anyone can map out the future of the technology across all of its landscapes with any degree of accuracy. There are too many variables; too many paths; too many unknowns. There will be correct predictions about pieces of the industry, but no one knows what the future holds across the entire expanse of 3D printing.
A mentor of mine once told me that when assembling market data there isn’t a right answer. He told me that you use the information that exists within the company; extract data from public sources; and fill in the gaps with what you think is right. And that is my recommendation to you. Combine facts, figures, opinions and predictions with what you feel is right. Stir it up and see what your intuition tells you. As you navigate the landscapes of 3D printing, find your own truth and make your own future.
Todd Grimm is president of T. A. Grimm & Associates, which offers additive manufacturing and 3D imaging consulting and communications services.