There are many well written articles floating around discrediting the promise of Additive Manufacturing and its “print anything” hype. Because expectations are so high, they feel the industry and its development will be analogous to failed technologies like virtual reality where outsiders jump in to try to avoid missing the next big thing only to lose big.
Though there are certainly large issues with the hype and the absurd idea that within 5 to 10 years every consumer will be printing everything they previously purchased, 3D printing does not immediately have to be the next personal computing sized revolution to help entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes quickly create new ideas, tackle new approaches to design, reduce tooling time and investments, and maintain a nimbler, more flexible supply chain.
Though some may be disappointed and therefore turned off to Additive Manufacturing when it does not live up to the promise of becoming a low cost, all purpose Star Trek Replicator for household use, the hype is still quite a positive thing, because many more savvy entrepreneurs easily recognize the benefits to their personal businesses that they had not seen when they had never heard of the technologies.
So what if 3D printing will likely not live up to the hype? Firms involved in 3D printing don’t care. We are just happy for the exposure. If these machines never reach every household, there is still room for ample growth. Just ask the museum curators who can now replicate priceless artifacts, the automobile and airline executives who are working to create components that weigh up to 90% less and therefore create vehicles that have amazing fuel economy, the medical and dental professionals who can now make inexpensive and ultra-customized implants with lower rejection rates, the aspiring entrepreneur who knows a quick, inexpensive and functional prototype will likely garner him much more attention than just a pitch and napkin sketch, the car restoration enthusiast who is able to inexpensively replicate parts that are the last of their kind, or even the large scale fabricator able to quickly create custom fixtures to meet the demands of any job. The applications are endlessly growing and not just because of technological innovation.
Thanks to the hype, my sales force tells me that since this time last year, they get half as many blank stares when speaking with potential clients about Additive Manufacturing. That means in just one year twice as many people are able to look at the same hundred year old engineering problems and find new solutions through tools previously unknown to them. There is the heart of the growth and it is more than enough to get excited about, especially considering that five to ten years ago most of the types of users listed in the previous paragraph did not even exist.