These are interesting times for 3D printing, to say the least.
Every day I awake to a Google news feed with a dozen or more articles discussing the latest breakthroughs, the amazing applications and the grand future that is just around the corner. Four years ago, Google served up one or two a day.
Several times a week, I pick up the phone to field questions on 3D printing’s amazing future. Most of these calls are prompted by the latest headlines. Those conversations usually go something like this:
Caller, “When will <insert 3D printing headline> disrupt the status quo and change the world forever?”
Todd, “It won’t.”
Although the line goes quiet after my response, I can sense the disappointment and confusion. After letting the comments sink in, I follow up with my enthusiasm for 3D printing’s bright future. However, I note that this future will be built on steady progress rather than rampant and disruptive change.
And that is why I now label myself as enthusiastically realistic. I am enthusiastic for the short and long term. I am a believer. But at the same time, I feel that I am being realistic as to how fast and how significant the changes will come and be.
Yes, the pace has quickened, but 3D printing is still evolving with incremental advancement, as have most other engineering and manufacturing technologies.
Although we’d like to see a quicker pace for 3D printing R&D, we certainly have not been disappointed.
Recently, I raced through the highlights of what’s new in a 25-minute presentation. There was so much to discuss and so little time that all I could offer were brief statements about each development. Yet, I still had to exclude many new items.
However, few of the mentioned items were anywhere near a breakthrough. Most were incremental changes: bigger system, new controls, latest software release or a new spin on an existing material. Some of the news had the potential to fuel misperceptions of rampant change. For example, I noted a rebadging of six systems that rightfully could be called “new.” But they weren’t new in the sense that they had never before been seen. These seven systems replaced their predecessors, adding only cosmetic changes and minor modifications.
Four other news items covered naming conventions. Technologies that had existed for 8 – 20 years received a process name; names coined to give each a unique identity. As those names screamed across the Internet, the casual observer could be left with the impression that new technologies had been born.
Fuel for Misperception
There are several factors that fuel the misperception that there will be amazing developments over a very short span of time. The first and most influentially is time itself.
Many of those that predict revolutions and disruptions in the near term fail to recognize the long, rich histories that have preceded the latest advancements. Blind to the 10 or 20 years of hard work leading up to the latest development, they incorrectly presume that much has happened in just a few years. That false notion is then extrapolated to conclude that much bigger and more exciting things will come at an even faster pace. GE’s announcement of plans to additively manufacture many parts of its jet engines is a perfect example. Not cognisant of GE’s work with direct metal systems and investment in research over many years, some perceive this to be an overnight success, and therefore, conclude that bigger things are just around the corner.
The other factors coalesce in a way that leaves us with the conclusion that there is something substantially new in 3D printing on a daily basis. At the heart of this confluence are the media and its driving need for content to report. A single story— embellished or not, fact or fiction — replicates in web pages, blog posts, twitter posts and social media streams. The bombardment creates a false sense of a lot of news. Of the dozen or so Google news items I receive daily, 30% to 50% are rehashes of the same story. And that story may have little to do with forward progress.
Reporting on the birth of yet another consumer-class 3D printer manufacturer or on yet another acquisition is newsworthy. However, these transactions only imply growth and progress. They are not barometers of either. Yet, the business developments support the implication that the 3D printing industry is very vibrant, dynamic and progressive. Sprinkle in household names like Staples and The UPS Store, and it seems obvious that the industry will be taking off like a rocket.
A recent example of this confluence is an error-laden article that stated that very-low-cost laser sintering machines are on the horizon due to expiring patents. The author then went on to claim that as result there will be explosive growth. Desperate for content, the headline was tweeted, posted and forwarded by many, all with the assumption that the original story was fact.
I fielded three calls within three days to solicit my comments about this fantastic news. All were looking for confirmation from an “industry expert.” All were disappointed when I said explosive growth would not happen.
However, along the enthusiastically realistic line of thinking, I did comment that there will be positive changes from expired patents. There will be more competition in the laser sintering field which will lower prices ($125,000 is my guess), spur material development, prompt innovation and increase technology adoption.
There is a lot of good, significant news, but it most is not evidence of a game-changing role for 3D printing.
Good Things Come…
3D printing will induce positive change and have an ever-increasing impact. It will continue to experience strong growth by any measure: applications, users, systems sales or material consumption. And the spotlight on 3D printing has and will increase that rate of change. It just won’t be at the breakneck speed that many promise, nor will it be a disruptive force across broad swaths of industries, applications and complementary technologies.
Perhaps being non-disruptive is a good thing. A recent Inc. article (September 2013) stated that it is a myth that innovation is disruptive. It cited a report by Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff that suggests that the most successful public companies allocate just 10 percent of their “innovation assets” to transformational, disruptive initiatives. The balance is dedicated to incremental advancements in existing product or realignment to new applications.
And yet, another possibility exists, according to the “long-nose” theory. 3D printing could experience phenomenal growth and be a disruptive force, but where and how are difficult to predict.
Projected against what we hold true today, it is difficult for individuals to foresee the future as it will ultimately exist. Even experts get it wrong much of the time when prediction windows extend over long periods of time, some studies report. The long-nose, an idea attributed to Bill Buxton of Microsoft, complicates predictions. In a 2008 Business Week article, Buxton noted that most big ideas are built on the backs of 20 – 30 year old inventions that are combined and used in unexpected ways. Buxton used the legacy of the computer mouse as an example. Others supporting the long-nose theory cite Apple’s implementation of pinch gestures and capacitive touch screens, both developed long before the iPhone, as evidence.
“The heart of the innovation process has to do with prospecting, mining, refining, and goldsmithing. Knowing how and where to look and recognizing gold when you find it is just the start. The path from staking a claim to piling up gold bars is a long and arduous one. It is one few are equipped to follow, especially if they actually believe they have struck it rich when the claim is staked.” Bill Buxton
3D printing is in its third decade, so maybe predictions of phenomenal growth will come true… just not in the ways being predicated. My big-idea prediction is a new application that combines 3D printing with a never-before-seen material. Instead of trying to be as good as injection moulding with nylon, for example, we will see a material that can’t be processed in any other way; a material that performs like no other and creates a new market, a new application and a new growth opportunity.
But according to studies, I have only have fifty-fifty odds of being right.
I hope that you will join me in being enthusiastically realistic. Capitalise on what 3D printing can do for you today. Strategise and begin to move forward to create your own future while absorbing — not accepting as fact — the pundit’s predictions. And keep in mind that you can benefit from 3D printing without disruption and revolution. The simple concept model that 3D printing excels at making has the power to lower costs, increase quality and decrease product development time.