A 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.