Reality Check On 3D Printing

Last week I came across two blog posts in which the authors highlight their frustrations with the current state of 3D printing instead going into how great 3D printing is. The first one is from Robert Mitchell called 3D Printing is awaiting its Ipad moment. He basically argues that 3D printing is a nice technology but is still lacking traction because of technical and content constraints of the current generation of (consumer) 3D printers. The second post is from Anil Dash and is called 3D Printing, Teleporters and wishes. Anil writes about more or less same issues as Robert.

Those two posts flagged my interest because Gartner put 3D printing at the mere top of the hype cycle a few months ago. The next phase is the trough of disillusionment. It seems we are slowly moving into this phase. In my point of view this is a good thing. The previous phase called peak of inflated expectations has done its work. A lot of people are now aware of 3D printing and it is time to start focusing on maturing this technology. We need cheaper, faster and better machines and ditto on materials. This can only happen with economy of scale. 3D printing is still tiny compared to almost any industry. Even the market of CNC machines is several magnitudes bigger than the 3D printing industry of today.

So what did we gain last 2 years? The awareness and knowledge of 3D printing has spread beyond the niche market in which it was in. This is great because it makes 3D printing part of the decision process of product designers and (manufacturing) process engineers. I am hopeful that this will increases the number of applications and the actual usage of the technology. I think the investments in Shapeways ($5.1M – I work there) and MakerBot ($10M) are just two proof points of that.

Regardless of the incapabilities of 3D printing today I am still confident that we can overcome them over time. And if I am honest the technology is already damn useful today. Six months ago I wrote about the future of 3D printing. In it I laid down four major areas where 3D printing will have a major impact. Those were:

  1. Personalized products and personal fabrication
  2. Reduction design-to-manufacturing cycle
  3. Bring back manufacturing to the Western world
  4. Manufacture parts which were not possible before

If I go over this list I see all four of them are happening today. Not on a large world-changing scale yet but I do see it happening of front of my eyes. I am happy to part of it. The same happened with personal computers and the internet. Those are awesome technological achievements and I am happy they happened in my lifetime. 3D printing is in my view another one. What do you guys think?

  • Brianfederal

    Robert, nI agree with your observations on the current state of 3D Printing for the most part.My take is the technology is not hyped enough. I believe that your revenue at Shapeways has grown substantially in 2011. Makerbot is going to have to make some big changes and fast to survive the drop coming in the price of the low end units. We need more creative minds from a variety of market sectors to drive mass adoption of this technology. I think you hit the nail on the head with your observation that the economics and price have to be in line.Things are actually going quite well and this is a very exciting time for the industry.nn

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com Robert Schouwenburg

      I agree that more attention to 3D printing will still help.nnPersonally I am happy to notice that I can skip the description of 3D printing when I talk about Shapeways nowadays. That is a major step forward from 2-3 years ago.

  • Brianfederal

    Robert,
    I agree with your observations on the current state of 3D Printing for the most part.My take is the technology is not hyped enough. I believe that your revenue at Shapeways has grown substantially in 2011. Makerbot is going to have to make some big changes and fast to survive the drop coming in the price of the low end units. We need more creative minds from a variety of market sectors to drive mass adoption of this technology. I think you hit the nail on the head with your observation that the economics and price have to be in line.Things are actually going quite well and this is a very exciting time for the industry.

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com Robert Schouwenburg

      I agree that more attention to 3D printing will still help.

      Personally I am happy to notice that I can skip the description of 3D printing when I talk about Shapeways nowadays. That is a major step forward from 2-3 years ago.

  • Lily Su

    Definitely agree with you on the point that 3D printing is damn useful. I was thinking within similar lines as your 4, but not quite what you stated. I definitely perceive that our systems of manufacturing will undergo a major shift and experience exponential growth from the ease of production. I can only imagine what this change in manufacturing processes will drive in social change.nn1. Personal invention -u00a0 For simpler products, there doesn’t need to be specialized designers, instead anyone can take part in the design. Just as there are YouTube stars, I imagine there can be people who hit it big in the 3D printing industry. Someone doesn’t have to have a standard education and an established place in industry to produce something extremely useful.nn2-3. I agree with you on improving efficiency of the design-to-manufacturing cycle.u00a0 The economy may experience a boost when production time and effort is cut. Whether manufacturing in the Western world will be brought back will depend on decisions of each business on investing in capital and other countries’ initiatives to out-beat the 3D printing expand in the West. nn4. Besides manufacturing things that have not been possible, some industries will use 3D printed materials instead of whatever they were using due to of weight and strength of printed plastics. nnIf only recycled plastics can be used in mainstream 3D printing, or printed materials can be reprinted, the green movement would get a boost too…

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com Robert Schouwenburg

      I get really excited about personal invention. Though we need next to 3D printing also enable people to actually create. That is still a key challenge for personal creation in my mind. nnI always think of how I could get my mother to create something. The current options are still not friction less and accessible enough for most people. nnExcellent point on improving designs (point 4). Thanks!

  • Lily Su

    Definitely agree with you on the point that 3D printing is damn useful. I was thinking within similar lines as your 4, but not quite what you stated. I definitely perceive that our systems of manufacturing will undergo a major shift and experience exponential growth from the ease of production. I can only imagine what this change in manufacturing processes will drive in social change.

    1. Personal invention -  For simpler products, there doesn’t need to be specialized designers, instead anyone can take part in the design. Just as there are YouTube stars, I imagine there can be people who hit it big in the 3D printing industry. Someone doesn’t have to have a standard education and an established place in industry to produce something extremely useful.

    2-3. I agree with you on improving efficiency of the design-to-manufacturing cycle.  The economy may experience a boost when production time and effort is cut. Whether manufacturing in the Western world will be brought back will depend on decisions of each business on investing in capital and other countries’ initiatives to out-beat the 3D printing expand in the West.

    4. Besides manufacturing things that have not been possible, some industries will use 3D printed materials instead of whatever they were using due to of weight and strength of printed plastics.

    If only recycled plastics can be used in mainstream 3D printing, or printed materials can be reprinted, the green movement would get a boost too…

    • http://robert.schouwenburg.com Robert Schouwenburg

      I get really excited about personal invention. Though we need next to 3D printing also enable people to actually create. That is still a key challenge for personal creation in my mind.

      I always think of how I could get my mother to create something. The current options are still not friction less and accessible enough for most people.

      Excellent point on improving designs (point 4). Thanks!

  • Wbs

    Seeing 3D printing hit the current level of hype is exciting, and satisfying, for those of us who have worked to build the technology. I might buy that we have hit a high point in the hype cycle, as I’ve had an investor recently call 3D printing “trendy.”nnMore improvements need to be made to systems on a couple of fronts:nn1- reliable and easy to use machines (beyond fdm) for the lower cost users, but alsou00a0nn2- much more reliable systems with higher throughout for the manufacturing class customers.nnMaterial properties and design freedom are powerful, but I think adoption in a production environment can’t improve until there is are more systems that can crank out several toaster sized objects an hour.

  • Wbs

    Seeing 3D printing hit the current level of hype is exciting, and satisfying, for those of us who have worked to build the technology. I might buy that we have hit a high point in the hype cycle, as I’ve had an investor recently call 3D printing “trendy.”

    More improvements need to be made to systems on a couple of fronts:

    1- reliable and easy to use machines (beyond fdm) for the lower cost users, but also 

    2- much more reliable systems with higher throughout for the manufacturing class customers.

    Material properties and design freedom are powerful, but I think adoption in a production environment can’t improve until there is are more systems that can crank out several toaster sized objects an hour.

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