One Thing That We Can Still Not 3D Print is the Balance Sheet

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Build your future today.

With all the progress in 3D printing, we must remind ourselves to stay humble. We are in a very capable industry with accelerating growth and adoption rates. In the eyes of many, we’ve gone from spielerei to potential manufacturing tool in only a few short years. With new materials, applications, research, and processes being released every day being in 3D printing now can be a bit heady. We must be mindful of the fact that a lot of the research that we’re seeing will not peter out. We have already left many a disappointed project and implementation in our wake. Not all of the centers for excellence will be excellent, and many cut ribbons will fray. Once the cameras have stopped flashing and the ink of the headlines bleeds into landfill, what will remain of our momentum? This is something that we can not know. At the same time boosters, liars and fantasists will continue to spin their untruths, and we will continue to be assaulted by headlines that lie and incompetent journalists who fabricate articles to placate PR reps. These actions can harm us especially today as we move from prototype makers to making mission-critical parts. As a side note, we alone in this industry fact check and try to write for readers in an unbiased and truthful way. If you should at any point have an issue with any of our words, please do let me know at We are aiming to be your consistent source of useful information, so please keep us to a high standard.

Sure the stairs are rickety but you’ll get used to them.

At the moment 3D printing is an archipelago of good news islands. Amidst our joy and expansion, our future looks bright. One thing that we have not yet managed to 3D print, however, is the balance sheet. Yes, people are enthusiastic about 3D printing. C-Level people are promoting our technology internally while firms and countries see us as strategic. As we know, there are real advantages to in some cases using 3D printing. We can accelerate the time to market of parts and make geometries that others can not. We can iterate, test and improve parts more. We can shorten development times, development costs and dependencies in engineering projects. We can integrate new functionality into parts and reduce part count. We can create parts that save weight or through better surface texture increase part performance. We have not yet proven where exactly we can do this for many end-use parts. Apart from orthopedics, dental and hearing aids there is currently scant evidence that we can make a difference when we scale to millions of parts. We’re all, of course, confident that we will get there in the end but optimism is not what keeps airliners up ten kilometers above us. Now is the time when the rubber meets the road and when we will have to prove our mettle in the boardroom and on concrete floors.

Look at how much fun they’re having.

The next few years will determine if we will inhabit a few perfectly suited niches or become a much larger manufacturing technology. Will we only do fit technologies such as hearing aids, glasses, personalized implants, insoles, and some sports equipment along with space and aviation? To be fair, this would be a nicely profitable chunk of barriers to entry stuff to have. On the other hand, we could become huge in the automotive and other industries. There’s an issue however with this holding us back. Apart from the aforementioned optimism of our potential and the whirl of a knotted yarn around “complexity is free” there is little actual financial information on 3D printing business cases. What is out there is based on single parts or choice examples (with a lot of it being utter codswallop). We know that the business case is indeed there in acetabular cups which could be around six to eight times cheaper than conventionally made parts but where is the data for us to look at? Locked in ivory towers with a wisp of blonde hair enticing us to climb upward, Rapunzel keeps her secrets.

Feel free to practice. Visualization is everything.

Where is the definitive business case with all of the relevant numbers for acetabular cups? How about our other great live success, hearing aids? We know that these individualized parts are cost-effective but where are the complete cost estimates and where is the data? We’re not, as an industry providing our champions with enough ammo to convince boardrooms that we are worth investing in. They’re doing all of this stuff on a hope and a prayer delivered through a powerpoint slide. We could calculate the total cost saved per replacement part for specific technologies or share numbers on what weight and other savings actually mean. I still believe that by realistically looking at how much capital is tied up in inventory and spare parts companies could become significantly more profitable through adopting 3D printing. But, belief will not power an aero engine. Finance professionals, consultants, and accountants are taking an interest in our industry. But, they do nothing publicly to make the business case for 3D printing. Some half-truths, recycled ideas, and a buzzword or two blended together is what powers their engagements. They call them engagements by the way because it means they’re screwing you consistently. Where are the best and the brightest minds in all of Excel-world? And why are they not crunching the numbers to 3D print the balance sheet so that corporate leaders can pull the trigger in a meaningful way on transformative 3D printing projects? The one thing we’ve consistently not been able to 3D print is the balance sheet. Who will be the team that actually looks at 3D printing in depth and secures themselves a future in being the lighthouse that safely guides corporates through their 3D printing journey? There is enough money to be had for those who can deliver on conjecture.

Images CC Attribution: Marcus Eigenheer, Shine 2010Roderick Eime, Tom.

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