Sometimes 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?
Machine capabilities have improved to the point where you can make a semblance of many consumer products. Thinking past the current cost structures of the industry and re-imagining them or changing them also significantly changed the equation. Releasing yourself from the high margin, high touch business to business way of doing things also helps. But, most importantly this is also clearly an idea whose time has come. People feel constrained by mass manufactured products and are put off by the ever present marketing of them that surrounds them. In a world crowded by products consumers are increasingly at pains to differentiate themselves. The technology that surrounds us have become more complex.
You used to be able to open up something and intuit or discover what it did. Now chips, boards and encapsulated functionality obscure what a thing does. We are unable to repair many things and just toss them. Our jobs are abstract, our hands only used to type. We make things such as Excel sheets and PowerPoints and are divorced from the simple joys of our minds and hands conspiring to create. We are lost in higher cognitive mazes of our own making. We live existences that are both hurried and passive, stressful without real movement, danger or excitement. We watch TV or surf, downloaders not uploaders in this life.
Physical movement is an entry in our agenda when we go to a place to exercise. We make very few physical contributions to this world and don't make things like we used to when we were children. We are all born makers, but grow out of it. We are creative only in meetings and we only really create when we cook, which many see as a chore to be quickly dispensed with. Throw into this a younger generation of millenials who grew up with the world continually at their fingertips and whose lines between the digital and physical world are blurry. Combine this with uncertainty about the future of the planet, millenarian thinking and an increased visual exposure to disasters from around the planet and what you get is a field ripe for plowing. A field ripe for harvesting the idea that a machine can let you make anything you want.
And then picture the following: you're a journalist and have been asked to write about this exciting new technology, 3D printing. You Google this term and find very little. You could have Googled Free Form Fabrication or any number of other terms and you would have found much more. You maybe could have found Wohlers Report or TCT and found out about this wonderful industry. But, you don't because you don't know that these things and terms exist. You don't drive to the nearest service bureau because you don't know that exists either. So, you write about this exciting new technology and the possibility it has of letting consumers make anything they want. And this explodes because at this one point everyone is ready for such a thing, sci-fi now.
Maybe another journalist later on manages to find some traces of this $1.7 billion dollar industry but in the scheme of things that's not important. Well, until some bright eyed people in North Carolina decide that M&A is better than SLA. But for now the hype machine goes into overdrive. Start ups start popping up everywhere and with such rapidity that there must be something real going on. This must actually be happening, now! Of course, you know that many of them have simply found a new box to put a RepRap in but not to worry it all builds the inevitability of this technology in the minds of an ever growing number of people.
And then the news starts building. You can now 3D print in Colour! OMG! You can now 3D print in metal. You can now...etc. Many things are made and specifically pitched and targeted at particular media. The news is reinforced by 3D printed characters, keychains, belts etc. etc. This gives everyone an angle to write about the technology. Then the nice people at The Economist validate the technology and all of a sudden journalists see themselves as getting caught out if they wait any longer with their 3D printing piece. At the same time thousands of people are experiencing 3D printing for the first time and excitedly sharing their works with their communities and the world at large. They are heady with excitement because they have made a thing and the news in 3D printing seems to point towards an inexorable conclusion in their minds, this will change the world.
The great body of research, machine development, manual labor and expertise of the industry is sucked into the maelstrom. All your developments are seen as part and parcel of this 3D printing revolution. As ironically for someone writing for Time Compression it is the short space in which these people find out about this technology, the short compressed space whereby these new technologies and applications are released and the rapidity of this release that cements this inevitability in their minds. They find out about all of these new developments in the space of a few months, with new releases and information quickly surpassing each other. So rather than follow the slow determined trod of machine development over a period of years they are confronted with continual immediate improvement and invention of new and improved 3D printing processes and products within weeks.
And then we all start mixing our metaphors. It will be just like desktop printing, it will be like the microprocessor, if the machine is now 300,000 then a desktop DMLS machine will be 1000 in a few years. We look at how rapidly our cameras are improving and expect these machines to improve at the same pace. We think about how reliable all the consumer electronics are and we expect the same reliability from these devices. We remember how poor PC graphics were and how much faster our phones are now and how much more powerful our computers are now. We extrapolate on this beautiful idea of 3D printing and its current capabilities, compare it against an idealised replicator universe and think we'll gleefully amble towards a 3D printed world in a few short years.
Now, you wouldn't be reading this magazine if you didn't think that was bull. There is no Moore's Law for 3D printing. We won't double our collective capabilities in months. The market consists of many technology silos that have next to nothing to do with each other. An advancement in one will not spill over into the next. The bigger the machine, the harder it gets to make it. A simple extruder printer is easy to construct but getting something to make consumer level products consistently is a much higher order problem. Surface texture, surface finish, colour and dimensional accuracy are hard enough to achieve but combine all those advancements into one system and it becomes harder still. Depending on the object different machines and different technologies may better suited to making it. The market and technological developments are much more fragmented than people think. Its also much more difficult to design for 3D printing. The toolchain is too complicated and there is no postsctipt for 3D printing. Materials are too expensive. And perhaps most importantly, a broad adoption for 3D printing will require a sea change in consumer behavior. We are often not inspired and have a blank canvas problem when we try to make things where we are frozen in place by the sheer possibility of creation.
The slow slog uphill will be slower than is anticipated. I personally believe that at the moment we can make 1% of things perfectly at revenues of $2 billion and a revenue growth of 29% a year. Eventually we'll have $200 billion in revenue and be able to make anything. This will likely take much longer than most people think. At one point we will gleefully skate down the Gartner hype cycle. Disillusionment will grow. People's unrealistic expectations of this market and its current capabilities will cause this. But, the internet was nothing at one point also. Slow, bereft of interesting information, and real life application. Then came the hype. Unrealistic, overfed hype. But, with the internet the hype was enough. The media built it and we came.
Because of the sheer brilliance of the idea and the universal application of it the internet became a font for all possibility, much hope and a lot of money. The internet was not a fait accompli, it was not inevitable. It was made in people's minds first and their collective belief lead investors, entrepreneurs and researchers to make it real. The internet was a dream and has now become a reality. We are at such a time with our industry. When pen chewing journalists dreaming away can create a world where everyone can make anything. The more I look around the more I believe in the inevitability of our industry surging into and conquering manufacturing, distribution and design. The more I look around the more I believe that the lag between the promise of this industry and its actual capability will be solved, eventually. The more I look around the more I believe that we are actually making machines that will let anyone make anything and paving the world for the greatest technological revolution mankind has ever seen. But, then again, just because you know that there is a reality distortion field, doesn't mean you can tell if your in it.
Joris Peels is a consultant to the 3D printing industry specialising in business development, strategy, marketing, online and community management. You can read his blog on http://voxelfab.com/blog