With 3D printing, “anything is possible.” That oft-heard message is exciting and provocative; and for the most part, that message is true. However, it is vague, nebulous and too expansive. When everything is possible, there is no direction or guidance.
For some, the limitless, boundless message is an invitation to innovate and experiment. Endless possibility tickles at the curiosity and presents a puzzle to be solved. It invites sweeping change and invokes grand plans. For the majority, however, the message is simply overwhelming.
If anything is possible, users are tasked with determining where to start and left to their own devices to chart a path to achieve the most advantageous results with the least amount of effort and investment. Being too busy or too risk adverse, having numerous options and opportunities may lead to paralysis in the masses while motivating the few.
Author Geoffrey Moore, in his book Crossing the Chasm, proposed that early success with new solutions is mostly achieved with a conscious, focused pairing of solution with opportunity. This is the opposite of what has been done in the 3D printing industry for the past decade. Moore proposes the approach of problem looking for a solution; 3D printing has taken the approach of solution looking for a problem and compounded that with the “anything is possible” message.
Moore also proposes that the need that is to be addressed is narrowed to a small segment of the market, for example, by industry, demographic or another characteristic. For 3D printing, the value proposition is generally directed to all prototypes, patterns, tools or production parts for all industries. Granted, there are exceptions, with jewelry, medical and dental solutions being the most obvious, but they are few and far between.
I agree with Moore, and that is why I cheered (inwardly) at the recent media day that Stratasys held.
As reported by TCT, and many others, Stratasys announced two product demonstrators that were later on display at IMTS. One demonstrator, the Infinite Build, expands the range of part sizes that are possible. The other demonstrator, Robotic Composites, yields parts in thermoplastic composites that eliminate the need for support structures. Together, these demonstrators show the promise of significant advances for the Fused Deposition Modeling process.
While I liked what I saw and was excited about the possibilities, the demonstrators are not what I inwardly cheered. What raised my hopes, spirits and expectations was the message delivered by Stratasys management in its preamble to the technology reveal. What the team said mirrored what Moore suggests, focus.
Before any hints as to what was to come, Stratasys launched into a discussion of industry focus, partners and use cases. It noted the challenges of a technology-first approach and the merits of identifying need and then developing 3D printing solutions to address it. For Boeing, a partner on Infinite Build, the use case focused squarely on the production of interior panels that line the fuselage of an aircraft. For Ford, also an Infinite Build partner, the use case was built upon production-floor tooling, such as fixtures. Both companies had identified challenges to which an advanced 3D printing solution could be applied.
The intent behind the Stratasys demonstrators is what excited me most. That intent translates to clarity of purpose, application and value. I’m not saying that Stratasys is the only company to employ a focused, solutions-first approach. Others have followed the use-case method; yet most still employ the “build it and they will come” approach.
While waiting for other 3D printing suppliers to develop focused solutions for identified challenges, how does the user community combat the directionless, “anything possible” mantra? How does it move from the paralysis of limitless options to gain momentum by taking action? The answer is to continue to dream and imagine while focusing on the issues of the day. Marry the possibility with existing challenges to create your own use cases and your own value propositions.
Instead of starting with 3D printing technologies’ possibilities, observe the daily challenges, problems and opportunities. As these come to mind, pause for a moment and ask if 3D printing could provide a viable solution. If determined to be potentially viable, then begin to identify the approach as well as the benefit to the company. This practical approach allows individuals to build their own use cases from current, real needs rather than creating a technology-based case built on possibilities.
This approach does not discourage innovation; rather it creates a firm foundation upon which to innovate. This is what Boeing and Ford are doing. And, somewhat surprisingly, many of 3D printing’s high-profile innovators started not with a grand vision but with a desperate need — a need or challenge that only 3D printing could address.