3D printing has been speaking to the imagination of a lot of people. Main stream media have been taking the phenomenon on a run around town and hailed it in as a new industrial revolution (Guardian, The Economist).
In looking at it closer, there are two groups of people to be observed. Those that still don’t know what 3D printing actually is and are not interested. And those that know about it and are very enthusiastic about what possibilities it may bring. There is no true way to find out which of the two groups is the largest and more influential. But since mainstream media has picked up the subject of 3D printing, you can safely assume that the latter group is gaining in numbers quickly and fuelling the expectations of the masses. The US [ref] and now even Europe [ref] and China [ref] are all marching their politicians to the beat of the new revolution. It is seen as a way to win back manufacturing jobs where it had been dwindling before.
Recently though a third group appears to have made itself known as well. A group of people that understand the process involved in designing and engineering consumer products. These people have picked up the pen as well and have started voicing their opinion. Several blog posts and articles have popped up that warn against the imploding of the hype that has been building up around 3D printing (3DPrintingIndustry.com, Develop3d.com, Newstatesman.com). They warn against the hyped expectations not holding up against what it can deliver.
While their venting feels similar to Ken Olsen saying in 1977; “There is no reason for an individual to have a computer in his home”, they do make valid points. Some say that printing out spare parts for broken appliances around the home is potentially dangerous as the printed parts might be used in instances where they cannot hold up to the mechanical stresses applied to them. Or they say that the process of designing a 3D part to print is not as simple as it sounds.
The thing to keep in mind though is that they, like Mr Olsen, are making these points in a time that the technology is at its inception (even though the technology itself has been around for a while). Just as for the mobile phone, the computer and even the paper printers when they were in its infancy, we cannot predict what will happen in 5 years time. Let alone in 20 years time.
So is the bubble going to burst? Personally I think it will deflate, but not burst.
And with current developments in 3D printing but also with Crowdsourcing and Crowdfunding, other Additive Manufacturing techniques and Open Source software and hardware, I hope that the human race will default back to making everything customised again. Like it used to be. More input into what we use. No more “one size fits all”. And in the meantime accelerating development in Design, Engineering and Science. Combined with smarter use of our resources.
Then in 20 years time, we’ll back where we started in the 18th century, before the first industrial revolution. But with cooler technology.. Who knows, we might even have those flying personal jetpacks that we have been dreaming about for so long?