Our honeymoon is officially over. After a few years of being feted by the world’s media and being one of the most talked about tech subjects globally, 3D printing deception is now the norm. Inflated promises and overclaim by some vendors has led to user and media discontentment with our technology. After several years where 3D printing seemed to be an emerging solution to many ills we are now on the rebound. Articles have emerged decrying the lack of progress and implying that we somehow haven’t fulfilled the promises made by some of our errant brethren.

How do we cope with our slippery slithering slide down the hype cycle into the trough of disillusionment? And how will we emerge after we tirelessly climb our way out of it?

It was beautiful

Let’s first look back a bit and realize just what a beautiful run we’ve had. We were on the Today Show and just about every other self-respecting TV show. We were in the nightly news with 3D printed noses, bicycles and chocolate. Newspapers explained our technology and lauded our innovations. Thousands of journalists told us we’d all have a factory on our desktop. Mediocre research papers were the basis for internet sensations. Badly designed and conceived printers raised millions on Kickstarter. Hype merchants strutted their stuff on stages worldwide and 3D printing gurus emerged everywhere. We’re an industry with thousands of gurus and ‘experts’ but very few people doing the actual heavy lifting and inventing and making new things. It was a beautiful time to work in marketing because you could, with a bit of luck and an intern, 3D print a thing and get it on CNN or in the national papers. All our friends and families were curious as to what we did and we seemed to be at the center of the universe. At one point we didn’t even need to explain 3D printing anymore to people we met because everyone had seen it on the BBC or on blogs.

Below is a Google Trends report on the prevalence of the search term 3D Printing since 2004.

Good stuff right? But, below is that same trend report where 3D Printing in blue is compared to Justin Bieber in Red.

On the up side we may just have reached “Peak Bieber.” But, we must put our growth in global mindshare in perspective. We’re a $10 billion a year industry with hundreds of new fast growing start ups. Yes, we could change medicine, aerospace and manufacturing. In the scheme of things, however, our mindshare as expressed in search volume on Google barely registers when compared to a pop artist.

Need a bit more of a reality check? Below is the total search volume in “3D Printing” in blue when compared to Justin Bieber in red, Niki Minaj in Yellow and Jessie J in green. Jessie J you may remember from the 2011 hit “Price Tag.” Currently the search volume for Justin Bieber queries is 26 times that for 3D printing.

 Just some info to put our meteoric rise into perspective. Even though we were very popular we have not penetrated the public consciousness sufficiently. We are not top of mind. Many people have heard and have a basic understanding of our technology but we are seen as a hobbyist’s curiosity. We shall need to make a more measured and deeper impact next time around.  

Down the rabbit hole

We’re kind of all guilty about misleading or at least egging on the press to a certain degree, even those of us who sought to qualify statements and express our doubts. You knew that a one hour interview could be well measured and give people a balanced understanding of the state of the technology but that in the end the only thing they’d publish was the one sentence about “Kids will now 3D print all their lunchables,” “3D Printing to Change Bowling Forever” or whatever nonsense was de rigueur. Apart from making me very skeptical about any article I read in the press, the whole hype nonsense made me a bit despondent. Once we reach a climb in the interest into our technology once again, we should be more careful. We should be measured, calm and consistent with our opinions. We should talk about and show actual current applications and not feed the fire of empty hype. 3D printing should be presented as a technology that for high value applications can save companies money and time. Desktop 3D printers can enable some consumers to start businesses or, if they are creative and can 3D model, they can create unique things. Other people can easily customize things to augment their lives. The time for inspiration has passed; what we need now are business cases and actual working end products. If the promise of our industry is that we can make everything quickly then why, amidst a global fidget spinner craze, do we print out a lot of fidget spinners but no one is making a lot of money out of 3D printed fidget spinners? That is a question of machine reliability and speed as well as the surface quality of parts. Real improvements to machines, software, materials and post processing will have to make our technology’s promise a reality.

The new now

What we’re seeing now is a slide into irrelevance in the global consciousness. Simultaneously, below the radar it is by far the most exciting time to work in 3D printing. Aerospace companies are investing in commercializing our technology for end use aerospace parts in polymers and metals. Companies are industrializing production using desktop 3D printers. Quality control, simulation, part tracking and improvements in throughput are being achieved. We’re going from press release to compliance. Deep fundamental work is being done to make our technology suitable for critical parts in many applications. We will need to showcase this when the time is done.

A few years ago my customers were almost exclusively either business development people or funds. People were interested what the 3D printing stocks would do or trying to fill in some snazzy presentation for the CEO. People used the word innovation and disruptive a lot. Now my customers are more careful, more boring. The squawk box quickfire minds and voices have been replaced by the calm and measured tones of engineers and lawyers. Projects are bigger, more complex and more fundamental. Things are so slow. Slow because people want to invest considerable resources in industrializing our technology and investing in the long-term potential of it. This is a key time not to keep trying to feed the hype machine but to set yourself up to under promise and over deliver.  

What do you think? Has 3D printing been over-hyped? How can we better proceed as an industry from now on? Discuss in the After the Hype forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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