When Innovation Meets 3D Printing, Desktop Manufacturing Will See Revival

by Andy Heikkila

When 3D printing as a concept was still young, everybody and their grandmother were chomping at the bit to be part of the desktop manufacturing revolution. Promises of printed widgets and custom-designed doo-dads filled the interwebs and articles writing about the death of manufacturing circulated like wildfire–but slowly, that roaring flame reduced itself to a whisper, leaving many asking: “whatever happened with that whole 3D printing fad? Is 3D printing dead?”

Unfortunately, the desktop manufacturing industry fell short of its vast promises. Still, there are those who would argue that 3D printing hasn’t delivered yet. Despite the dip in popularity and cool reservations, desktop manufacturing, they might argue, is still set to deliver.

Getting Up to Speed…

When you look at the early days of the 3D printer, it’s pretty clear that people what people were expecting and ‘hyping’ was something akin to the Replicator from Star Trek, i.e. an easy-to-use device that could serve up a burger and fries at the push of one button, and a spare part for, say, your car in another. Reports of successful organ printing, as well as news of the test-firing of the world’s first fully 3D-printed gun, only supported the hype, and soon, plenty reckoned, the world would be transformed by the decentralization and democratization of manufacturing. Think bitcoin for builders.

strati_passenger_side

The Strati: The World’s First 3D-Printed Car

The amazing demonstrations made by major players in the industry helped to fuel hype too. If Ford is using 3D printed parts in their EcoBoost engines, why couldn’t a hobbyist print some of those same green engine components herself to a.) get over the high price tag, and b.) effectively reduce emissions and green-ify her car? As time has gone on, innovations involving 3D printing and automobiles have continued, including Honda’s 3D printed electric car, among many others–but the revolution that so many had been waiting for never came.

The Mythical “Industrial Revolution 2”: What Happened?

The hype surrounding 3D printing in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s was never too far away from a company called MakerBot. An article on Backchannel mentions:

Rolling Stone wrote about the Thing-O-Matic. The CBS Evening News wondered if MakerBots everywhere would soon give us the ability to create anything. The New York Times diagrammed the insides of the Thing-O-Matic.”

As MakerBot grew, so too did other 3D-printer startups. Soon enough, the market was flooded with companies promising to bring the desktop manufacturing revolution to you, encouraging users with corny models like “go out and make the future!”. The problem, however, was three-fold.

Many sources documenting the overhyping of the 3D-printing industry, including Investopedia, point specifically to three things that stunted expansion of the desktop revolution:

  • First, there was a huge lack of necessary application. Writing for Inc., author John Brandon recounts trying to print a water bottle cage for his bike. “…when I actually printed one of them,” he says, “it broke on my first ride.” While the devices made fun little doo-dads here and there, it’s hard to think of something practical that can be printed using the brittle plastic. “…You can print only so many Yoda heads before you wonder why you bought the device,” he notes. “It’s fun for a while, but eventually you realize you need to do something practical after paying almost $1,000 for the product.”
  • Second, realizing that these machines needed to be cheaper for people to actually want to buy them, many companies like MakerBot outsourced to China for less expensive parts. Signe Brewster, writing for TechCrunch, mentions that “3D printers aren’t incredibly complicated, but they have lots of moving parts that like to wear out over time and break. Cutting costs can exacerbate this. I have reviewed exactly one 3D printer that didn’t break or develop a mysterious software issue within days of use.”
  • Last, these machines are just plain difficult to use. Without a need for them, compounded by their notoriety as faulty pieces of hardware, many users looking for the plug-and-play experience delivered by the fictional Star Trek Replicator were disappointed. Mashable has a good post by Christina Warren about how difficult it was for her (a beginner) to try and make an iPhone case shaped like a Pokédex.

These three hiccups have ld many to proclaim 3D printing “dead” without hope of resuscitation. Fortunately, they’re probably wrong.

Rise Lazarus: 3D Printing is STILL the Future

It’s important to remember that just because so-called “desktop” manufacturing hasn’t exactly benefitted from 3D-print technology, doesn’t mean that big industrial manufacturing hasn’t been utilizing it. GE is one manufacturer that’s been innovating 3D-printed part, supplying the Berlin-Mitte Vattenfall power plant in Germany with unique heat shields that can help reduce cooling needs by over 40 percent.

3D-printed burger: not edible

3D-printed burger: not edible

The Australian government also seems to think that the future may be 3D-printed. They’re currently requiring indigenous job seekers to take a course on 3D-printing. Considering that other sources are claiming we’ll eat 3D-printed Turkey for Christmas dinner in the future, as well as that we’ll soon be able to print metal, it may be pertinent for us all to take classes on 3D printing.

While the hype machine may have petered out, it’s important to remember how humbly the computer began. It was a giant machine–a glorified calculator, by today’s standards–that took up an entire room. Now it’s hard to find anybody that is ever further than 10 feet away from one that fits in their pocket and is thousands of times more powerful than its 50-year old predecessors.

With the right type of innovation, desktop manufacturing will enjoy the same fate as the computer. All it will take is a little bit of time, and a lot of 3D-printed innovation.

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Andrew HeikkilaAndrew Heikkila, a tech enthusiast and writer from Boise, Idaho, and a frequent contributor to Innovation Excellence. He also writes for Tech Crunch. You can follow him @AndyO_TheHammer

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