The 3D Printing Hype Party and the Hangover

The distance between the binary universe of computers and the materialized physical world is becoming smaller and smaller. While most human beings have witnessed an increased digital presence in their lives the past decades, yet another classic science fiction plot has been portrayed and hyped in the media in recent years. Nevertheless, the machines that allow anyone to make anything they ever dreamed of is in itself still just a dream in a lot of ways.

In order to get a grip on the whole hype situation, we’ll start off with an overview of the Gartner Consulting Group’s “3D Printing Hype Cycle”:

Skærmbillede 2015-03-18 kl. 22.58.03As seen in the figure, ‘Consumer 3D Printing’ and ‘3D Printing in Manufacturing Operations’ is about to deepdive from major expectations directly into public disappointment. Apart from bioprinting, these two segments are seen as something like the holy grail of 3D printing and the upcoming disillusionment needs to be managed carefully by the industry.

In the following paragraphs I will shed some light on the mismatch in 3D Printing expectations versus reality, why it is dangerous and then address how we can proceed from here.

The 3D Printing party starter

This exciting technology have been depicted as the promised land of consumer empowerment that will create nothing less than an industrial revolution! Back in 2013, even Obama started talking about these amazing “new” machines that are able to convert 1’s and 0’s directly into fabricated objects, when the NAMII (National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) was created. Subsequently, the hungry press spotted the opportunity for a great story, and then started serving up magic tales of fantastic near-future fabrication like bartenders serving strong tequila shots. Soon enough the world was buzzing on 3D hype.

To illustrate this development, let’s take a look at Google search trends from the start of the infamous open-source 3D Printing project “RepRap” (based on the self-replicating 3D Printer that never actually did replicate itself), meaning 2005 and onwards:

Google-Trends-3DP-vs-AM

We all want to believe in magic

The 3D Printing narrative that has been played out in the media has it’s positive sides but also dangerous pitfalls. The media attention has inspired a lot of new entrepreneurship, stirred up the innovative landscape and established a foundation for thinking beyond the status quo of manufacturing. Great. However, the relationship between described near-future possibilities and the actual attainable reality is in a lot of ways totally out of bounds.

As always, reasonable skepticism is advised whenever the media present news that sound almost too good to be true (or just any news at all). In all honestly, the journalists are not the only sinners here. And I get it – it feels great to believe in magic. Trust me, I have been every bit as captured by the seemingly endless possibilities of 3D Printing, when I first really encountered the technologies. But this magic is apparently harder to achieve than I was led to believe.

The internet was perfectly slow

It seems we have all become sort of spoiled when it comes to technological innovation, and expectations have generally been climbing up since we got used to the interconnectivity that the internet has brought about. Also, a lot of people like to compare the development of 3D Printing to the ICT world, generally estimating us to be somewhere in the late eighties at the moment.

But think about it – in the beginning of the internet, how many people said that soon we were all going to have live video conversations from across the world, anyone could become publishers with the push of a button and that it was all just so incredible? No one really did, because back then – it was not incredible.Yet. People were less speculative and more realistic about their expectations (obviously apart from when they thought the year 2000 was going to be way too much of a mouthful for the data machines to handle).

The problem with majorly inflated expectations

Everyone has been talking about “the killer app”, while expecting the equivalent of WordPress or Facebook for 3D Printing to be right around the corner. Again, I can see why, since the news have been filled with exciting headlines and promises. Nevertheless, this is quite controversial because a lot of the flashy developments, especially within bioprinting, are simply not backed up with scientific papers or any kind of real research at all. People don’t like being misled, especially not when it comes to business opportunities. Also, the false advertisement steals the show from people that actually make these things happen because it simply is not perceived as news anymore – also since the real developments will typically be in a less flashy format initially.

This is a real problem since the overly inflated expectations can create a massive disappointment, causing a loss of interest or most importantly trust and confidence in the technology. If the force of the disillusionment is as strong as it looks to be, then it is highly unlikely that the pragmatic mainstream decision makers in manufacturing companies will make any serious moves towards achieving more advanced applications anytime in the next 5-10 years, according to Gartner. This is obviously a huge setback for the development and adoption of the technology, while the combination between impatience and loss of confidence could even become a real showstopper for Additive Manufacturing technologies.

So, how do we proceed?

As is the case with any good, heavily alcohol-infused night out, we are all going to better off tomorrow if we end the 3D Printing party with some salt and a few glasses of water. All jokes aside, it makes sense to focus on what is doable with the technology right now, while creating tangible development roadmaps and pilot projects to achieve what is not yet completely possible. This obviously includes inescapable considerations on how to market those solutions and create that competitive edge.

As Klaus Højbjerre, consultant at the Additive Manufacturing department of the Danish Technological Institute, says:

While some people are obviously blinded by the hype, others are getting their hands dirty working with the technology right now. Not as the grand replacement of every existing manufacturing technology, but rather as complementary technology opening up new possibilities and markets. The best advice is to start using the technology, get some experience and learn about the strengths and weaknesses.“

In conclusion: Don’t just believe the hype, demand documentation for any new flashy applications mentioned in the media and – most importantly – start actively investigating how your company can use 3D Printing technologies to increase customer value creation, quite possibly via new business models. I will end this post by stating my personal 3D Printing mantra:

Passively waiting for ‘the killer app’ of 3D Printing is like expecting the intercity train to pick you up at your front door.

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