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Distortion FieleSometimes the grass really is greener on the other side, sometimes the expectation is far from reality.
Our industry is currently engulfed by a reality distortion field. This field will bring about many unrealistic expectations, much unfounded optimism and is causing people to misunderstand the industry its future and its capabilities.
The field came about because the industry has undergone name changes since its inception. Confusion between free form fabrication, rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing and additive manufacturing meant that many people did not know much about the industry. Journalists also could not search and find previous articles and sometimes missed companies and entire segments of the industry because they used a different term. Additionally some machine vendors use terms like SLM, DMLS, LaserCUSING and many other terms to define themselves and promote their technologies. This also breeds confusion.
With the limited number of decision makers involved in purchasing AM machines or working with service bureaus the technology has also hereto not gained much notoriety within long term customer's workforces. Several people in design and development departments would work with AM but due to secrecy in product development actual prints would not be shown to many colleagues. Unlike business productivity software that was rolled out across organisations and used by many this is a business technology that has operated for decades deep within the bowels of client's companies. Unlike a copier or CNC machine doing their work in front of everyone AM machines were locked away behind closed doors. Or the companies involvement with AM would come through a UPS package delivered to their doorstep and seen by only a few eyes.
Companies also don't routinely expose their product development processes and capabilities to those outside the business so this kept those in the know rather limited also. And frustratingly for service bureaus some of the most exciting and inspiring AM objects could not be shown publicly or talked about. Movie props, jet engine parts, production car parts, art and medical devices all were made without being able to be shown and without letting people understand what this industry was capable of.
Some of the most successful consumer facing applications of the technology have been shrouded in secrecy not revealing AM's part in the process or final product. The industry was also not previously successful in selling the media on the “big idea” that this technology would change the world. By focusing on the direct application of the technology it seemed like a business productivity tool rather than a revolution. So in the shadows an industry emerged with dozens of technologies, tens of thousands of examples of things it could make and hundreds of service bureaus, researchers, applications, vendors and other companies working on improving the delivery of the technology.
This industry now has many wonderful examples of jewels, concept cars, bobsleds, impellers, implants made in ceramics, titanium, gold, resins, photopolymers, ABS, PC, and many materials besides. Mature companies have emerged that have developed deep expertise in finishing and post finishing, the delicate work that makes an SLA lattice look like a rendering come to life. Machines have found their way into universities, labs and companies themselves and more and more things are being made on them. The industry has conferences with stands, standing and friendships whereby your sons grow up and go to college while you talk about the promise that this technology has and will have.
And then all of a sudden it happens. All of a sudden the big idea is presented to the media. Here is a machine that can make everything, a technology that can let anyone make whatever they want. And we can do it now. An amazing new development. And you guys were all thinking, “Wait a minute, this is all so unrealistic, they're way too optimistic, this is not how that will work.” Your realism and expectation management towards your customers inoculated you against the potential of a gigantic wave of publicity that could be generated if you just packaged this idea correctly.
The reality of making things every day and trying to adhere to unrealistic customer requests kept you from realising that at one point just a simple explanation of this technology could amaze everyone and get them to think of a future where everything can be manufactured “just so”; “tea, earl grey, hot.” The logic of 3D printing once a person is explained this technology means that they will not only have a bias towards believing in it but also immediately be able to see the possibilities. The core concept is so simple and yet so versatile that even the most jaded journalist will put his scotch aside and dream of a future whereby everyone can make anything. This very same click occurred to you at one point and more likely than not this is why you joined the AM industry. Is it really surprising that through a calculated use of PR and social media one could bring about a storm of such clicks in many people at the same time?