How Sexy Does 3D Printing Need To Be?

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2012: when hype in 3D printing was as distracting as Angelina Jolie’s leg. [Image via Know Your Meme]

A fast-growing industry is appealing, from a business sense, of course; investors, inventors, and customers alike all flock to get in on the Next Big Thing. With several 3D printing startups now valued at more than a billion dollars — unicorns! — as well as billion dollar partnerships, billion dollar acquisitions, and billion dollar contracts, this industry is clearly maturing. But some of the language around it isn’t.

I entered the additive manufacturing industry in 2014 following a six-year stint working in industry research/market forecasting. In the drier areas of research and analysis, impressive compound annual growth rates in nascent industries and in developing regions are often described as “fast-paced”, “high-growth”, or some similarly flavorless indicator of a fast rise from a small base. We’re still seeing that growth in 3D printing as the industry hasn’t rounded out its fourth decade yet, but on top of these descriptors is another expectation: it should be sexy.

Even as industry experts continue to muse on the terminology of 3D printing itself, the most important aspect at play in nomenclature must remain how understandable a given phrasing is. Terms like “3D printing” and “additive manufacturing” are by now widely known and understood, for the most part. And of course “sexy” is itself a widely-understood term; talk about a “sexy technology” and immediately the listener leaps to something more exciting and advanced than a piece of machinery from the first industrial revolution.

3D printing: it’s the Next Big Thing.

It’s sleek. It’s impressive. Does it have to be sexy? [Image: Carbon]

The Economist has taken note recently, and Forbes; 3D printing has some real gusto behind it as real-life applications are making their way into the mainstream. Two years ago, I wrote a piece for GE/The Economist’s (former) Look Ahead blog as industrial 3D printing began to take off and the power players invested more into the technology. More recently, as commercial shoes rise into being from seemingly nothing at the push of a button, the public at large is sitting up and taking note. As labs inside hospitals use 3D printing to help real patients, the doctors turning to the technology know that it’s sexy, know that while they see it as a tool to save lives, its appealing image also helps donors decide to donate.

3D printing is becoming an industrial (and medical) reality, with viable applications already out in the world today. Products have been produced, lives have been saved, people like to talk about it; so why isn’t everything created by additive manufacturing now? Well — the tech may be sexy, but it isn’t ready for a total takeover. Yet.

Each event in the industry seems to revolve around a given theme that emerges, whether consciously or by chance, creating a buzz word that drives that particular conference, tradeshow, or seminar. This year, at Materialise World Summit, it was co-creation; at the AM Conference, it was skills gap. More than just buzz words for the sake of being buzzy, each of these themes is both relevant and real, presenting a driving force behind some big decisions in business and research. Indeed, no progress will be made without collaborations, and a future without a trained talent pool is grim indeed. Still, overarching all of these is one other theme that often appears, as 3D printing — as a concept, as a technology, as an industry working to be appealing to workers — is inherently sexy.

Dr. Phil Reeves of Stratasys Expert Services showcasing hyped-up media from 2012-2015 at the AM Conference [Photo: Sarah Goehrke / featured slide: Stratasys]

We’re beyond the initial hype now, and into areas qualified with more realism for using 3D printing technology for viable applications. “Game-changing” and “disruptive” are still bandied about freely, but following the crash of expectations after, say, 2015 the technology isn’t compared quite as frequently to either Harry Potter-level magic or Star Trek-level insta-science. The honeymoon period is over.

So why do we still have to call it sexy?

Is manufacturing sexy?

In my temp days throughout college, I spent plenty of time working in manufacturing facilities, and it might have been the perspective of a 20-year-old English major, but spray paint can caps on a conveyor belt were not, in fact, especially appealing, nor were the stores of pressure components in the manufacturing company where I worked after graduation. As handy as pressure gauges and quick disconnect couplings are, I doubt many have ever described their assembly as a particularly enticing process. At the end of the day, manufacturing is a process of creation, a means to an end. It’s often industrial, often somewhat grubby — though additive is turning manufacturing from being perceived as blue collar to a white collar occupation.

Manufacturing is changing — but in form, not function. The how may change, but the what and the why are often the same, as are the who, as customers just want their products made and delivered, preferably speedily and at lower cost.

“It doesn’t have to be sexy, it just has to work,” B9Creations CEO Shon Anderson told me last spring.

The B9 Creator as seen at the iMakr Store; it doesn’t have to be sexy. [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

His words have stuck with me. Especially in desktop 3D printing, which was the haven of hype circa 2012-2015, some of the most reliable, workhorse machines are those that don’t make much of a fuss; they just work. Anderson noted that his company rarely attends 3D printing-oriented shows, preferring to attend trade events for the applications served instead to focus on the solutions offered. Similarly, MakerGear has moved slowly on marketing, instead focusing on creating a series of reliable machines that have gathered attention (and recognition) on their own merits, away from flashy ads or big promises. These aren’t especially sexy approaches. Also eschewing sexiness in business growth was BeeHex, which turned down a big television opportunity in favor of what they saw as a more realistic way to grow the startup.

Just a few weeks ago, Gartner released its 2017 Hype Cycle; Research VP in AM Pete Basiliere noted at the recent AM Conference that the commoditization of 3D printing is imminent. He projects additive manufacturing as a production commodity within the next two decades, at which point content will be king and the machine, material, and technology behind its production less of a concern.

“I don’t care anymore in 2035 what machine did it. The analogy here to 2D printing is spot on, you don’t care how your document is printed. The same thing will happen to 3D printing,” Basiliere said.

For a forecast in this often-optimistic industry, that outlook is decidedly un-sexy. Does that make it the most refreshing? Maybe. Or maybe it seems that way because it’s the opposite of over-hyping the use of AM. He has a point, after all; I had to double-check to see what brand the 2D printer in my office is, and if HP can go almost unnoticed in that piece of equipment, who’s to say exactly where their 3D printers will stand in production 20 years from now?

This is not to suggest that 3D printing is at all unimpressive, that the advances AM has made since its early days in the 1980s have been anything short of remarkable — or that use of 3D printing isn’t impacting the creation process. Use of additive manufacturing can offer a streamlined approach to business, with tangible benefits, and each of the various technologies of 3D printing offers its own quality parameters. Here the comparison to 2D printing thins out a bit; while the emergence of the digital press shifted the makeup of commercial 2D printing, the array of 3D technologies offer rather more variety in print characteristics targeted toward different business uses. Resin versus metal versus plastic versus ceramics versus biocompatible materials additionally offer significantly more options than black and white versus color when it comes to the look and feel of a print job.

Analyst Todd Grimm discussing ASTM classifications of AM technologies at RAPID + TCT 2017 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

The multitude of different technologies that fall under the umbrella of additive manufacturing — the ASTM counts seven unique AM technologies, as well as hybrid — have seen advances making possible wholly new architectures, new geometries, allowing for lightweighting and materials reduction, as well as speedier and lower-cost in-house production and prototyping. The benefits are becoming increasingly well known as more case studies emerge every day highlighting the ways in which 3D printing can benefit industries from aerospace to construction to pharmaceuticals. Production methods using additive technologies are enabling so many leaps (and LEAP engines) that we’re seeing better end-use products, and superior prototyping processes leading to them. 3D printing is also uniquely situated to work in a production stream with software optimized for the parameters enabled by additive, with options such as generative design enhancing capabilities.

At the end of the day though, 3D printing is a means to an end, it’s one way to manufacture, one part of a full process. It is not, and will never be, an entire answer unto itself; additive manufacturing functions best as a part of an ecosystem of production, whether via hybrid machines or simply as part of a full spectrum of machine offerings. Advanced technologies are changing the way we make things, that’s a fact. The things that are made will in turn be changed, but their functionality is the ultimate need.

Generatively designed, 3D printed lightweight airplane components are impressive, but ultimately what matters in their creation is that the plane flies, that the engine works, that the seats are secure. Advances in bioprinting hold great promise, and the idea of a 3D printed organ is exciting, but is a liver itself actually sexy?

I love 3D printing. I love the industry surrounding the technology, and genuinely celebrate the successes and advances driving it forward. But it may just be time to accept that it doesn’t have to be “sexy” to be worth attention and increased adoption. It may be time to let the language grow up along with the business.

Share your thoughts in the Should 3D Printing Be Sexy? forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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