by

February 26, 2013

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.

by

February 26, 2013

Comments (3)

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Sorry for responding so late, I missed the comments.

@Martin,

Thank you so much!

@Ian,

The hype cycle is a good metaphor for technological adoption and I agree with you that there is a risk of people becoming disillusioned with 3D printing. I think it is very probable that this will happen especially with many unfounded and realistic expectations being set now.

Many of the people that buy a desktop machine now will grow disappointed and many of the people who wan to 3D print now will find themselves unable to do so.

I don't think we'll collapse however. Investor and VC interest is still very high and revenue for many companies is going well. Both Stratasys and 3DS now have book values that could see them invest heavily still and indeed at current valuations just these two companies could sustain much of the industry as a whole. Many desktop start ups have raised amounts varying from 20k to 170k to 500k to 1.9m on Kickstarter. Several desktop start ups have gone from zero revenue to revenues of 500k or over 1m within 12 months. Large firms are beginning to show interest and it should take them many months to launch projects, applications and products with the technology.

But as the pushback hits and interest for a time diminishes it is the growth of prototyping, short run production and medical that will provide real revenues for the rest of the industry. These are hype independent developments.

As an industry we're perfectly placed to ride big sociological and economic trends and provide solutions for companies seeking higher margins, lower cost, technological edge & better product development.

What we need to develop is promises that we can deliver upon. The internet was supposed to connect us all and become an information super highway as well as change the world. The key to being able to deliver on the internet promise was that there was no time frame and the internet was the end goal of the promise. The internet will be amazing once there is the internet. And if the internet is not amazing now, well thats because its not fully there yet.

The sticky innovation that kept us all coming back turned out to be email. It gave us a home or sorts on the net and a tether to keep us engaged. It is by creating and sustaining tools and communities that will be continually engaged that we can bind people to the technology through thick and thin.

Your question has prompted me to write once again about the Blank canvas problem which I think is an issue for us so look for that in the next TCT!

Joris Peels more than 1 years ago

Will we get the chance?

Joris

I would first like to thank you for breathing reason into the hot-air balloon of hype that I have been enduring for the last year or so. It is definitely difficult for the general public to distinguish the facts from the promises and what worries me is that the balloon may eventually burst too soon.

The question in my subject line relates to a concern that I have where maybe the market will collapse before we really get a chance to show the world what this technology can really do. Are we going to get too many disgruntled VCs and fund holders kicking AM development in the teeth the same way that fuel cell, battery technology and tissue engineering are going? All have promise and all will eventually change (save) the world. But when?

I really think we need these momentary lapses of reason so that we can prepare the world for the inevitable disappointment that will surely come.

IG

Ian Gibson more than 1 years ago

The 3d printing reality distortion field

What a brilliant article. It was a joy to read.

Martin Smith more than 1 years ago

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