The Brittle Spear, a Manifesto: We Will 3D Print All of the Things that Matter


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Recently, I was rather shocked to discover that some people outside our market still think of 3D printing as a toy technology for making Yoda heads. One individual reminded me that many people believe the technology is still stuck in the Gartner Trough of Disillusionment. Yet another person bemoaned that so little was happening in 3D printing at the moment. From the eye of the storm, I assure you, this is the most exciting time to be a part of the 3D printing industry.

Yes, our technology is moving at a snail’s pace and may not be a very accurate production method in the grand scheme of things. We can’t do color well and we use comparatively few materials well, also. Smooth surfaces are still a problem for us. A third of part costs still come from manual labor, our machines are slow, and our materials are expensive. Everyone still asks us, “When will 3D printing be used in manufacturing?”

But, meanwhile, we’ve made tens of millions of metal bridges and crowns using powder bed fusion, tens of millions of jewelry molds with vat polymerization, millions of thermoset dental molds with vat polymerization, millions of clear aligners as well, tens of millions of hearing aid shells, and hundreds of thousands of surgical guides and orthopedic implants.

People always then press on, wishing to know when we’ll manufacture millions of inexpensive parts or bulk goods. I’ve always thought this was rather silly. It’s like saying that Airbus is not a manufacturing firm because it only makes 900 aircraft a year.

First, I thought that I had to justify why we didn’t make Happy Meal Toys and 2-cent polymer parts. I was always apologetic that we hadn’t fully penetrated the automotive supply chain or make inexpensive items. I’ve modeled and tried to predict when and how we’d be able to produce five-dollar metal parts. But, since the very beginning, I’ve always thought, “Why the f*ck would we?”

Image GE Aviation

Now that we are being used in regular car production by various companies for niche parts, I’m happy with the achievement. But I’m also not terribly content with our place in the margin-less desert that is the automotive supply chain. Additionally, I’m certain that people don’t really understand the potential of 3D printing. This technology is not relevant because we can “compete with injection molding.” This technology is relevant because we can make all of the things that matter. So, for the first part of this equation, I refer you to my 3D printing manifesto “welcome to a 3D printed world” that I made in 2016.

What will it mean to live in a world where anyone, anywhere can make anything? A world where 3D printers are ubiquitous?

  • We will no longer be able to wear anyone else’s shoes.
  • Given enough eyeballs, all things are shallow.
  • Anything that “touches” a person in some way will be 3D printed.
  • If it is important to you emotionally, it will be 3D printed.
  • if it is important to you because you are passionate about it, it will be 3D printed.
  • if it needs to be right because it is your life on the line, it will be 3D printed.
  • if a significant improvement in comfort means the world to you, it will be 3D printed.
  • We will 3D print all of the meaningful things. The value will migrate towards 3D printed goods and services that cater to a 3D printed world.
  • Mass-produced items with millions of copies will still be made. LVMH will still exist. Sometimes we want to outsource the complicated or unimportant decisions in design. But mass production will be rolled back, pressed into the corner of Happy Meal toys and cheap TVs.
  • What you design, what you find beautiful, what you discover, what you make, what you remix will determine value for a large amount of people. Creativity, discovery, being first, and curation will become crucial.
  • Smaller markets and smaller target audiences will dwindle. Peaks will be higher and valleys deeper. Product development will accelerate. There will be platforms for everything and everyone will be a brand.
  • Anything that can be made will be made by anyone anywhere.
  • Anyone could 3D print a spoon, a land mine, or a rose.
  • Nothing can be uninvented—no thing or no idea.
  • Any individual—even artists and terrorists—will have access to all of the world’s technology.
  • Armies will iteratively improve and get better still.
  • The leviathan will be bridled, not having a hold over his populace.
  • We will eliminate much of the waste caused by mass production.
  • We will eliminate much of the carbon and pollution caused by supply chains and inventories.
  • There will be no way whatsoever to defend any intellectual property.
  • In the long run, 3D printing will be completely free.
  • In the long run, the technology will suck the value out of all manufacturing, design, invention, and distribution.
  • We will be able to print spare parts for people. Tissue, bones, organs.
  • We will be able to nanoprint at the atomic level and produce labs-on-chips.
  • We will be able to 3D print nanomachines/microsystems on the desktop.
  • Gradient materials will outperform mass produced materials.
  • In the long run, it will not make sense to research or invent because you will not be able to benefit from invention.
  • Not being inspired will be the only reason not to make a thing.
  • Single inventors or designers working alone will compete with and bring down large corporations.
  • We will be able to think of any object and then 3D print it.
  • Any innovation will instantly be copied, any design instantly recognized. The Long Tail will be longer & the World Flatter than anyone could conceive. There will be no barriers to entry. None.
  • Welcome to a 3D printed world.

Series production of 3D-printed implants. Image courtesy of GE Additive.

With that in mind, yes, we will develop and improve over time. Yes, we will get better at surfaces and improve our costs. Yes, we will upgrade our machines and increase our throughput. But, we will make the things that matter. We will materialize the meaningful.

If you care about tennis, then we will make the handle of your tennis racket, mass customized just for you. For those who care, we can manufacture a dampening piece for your racket that reduces vibration and means that you can hit more precisely for longer with greater comfort. We won’t print the whole racket because there is no value in it—that’s a commodity that many can produce for $2. But we will make the parts that add value.

We will print the unique geometries that make this part uniquely valuable to you. We will make this racket competitive, personalized, do new things, create new value just for you. We will make things exactly as you want them to be. We will make what is wanted, when it is needed as it needs to be. We will enable unique geometries and textures to unlock unique new value propositions and competitiveness in many industries. And, if you don’t care about tennis rackets, then just get a mass-produced, commodity racket, you’ll never pay us what we need to survive well anyway.

The good business models are not in working for McDonalds or Foxconn or any commoditised nonsense at all. Why make the detritus? Why print the landfill? Let the wasteful mass manufacturing industry continue to pollute, while we create high-value goods for those who care. A made-to-order, made-for-demand industry is not only better for the planet, but also a better business. By only manufacturing high-value products that matter to those specific people that care, we can earn a margin while establishing long-lasting well paying profitable businesses that cater to our strengths.

Don’t be pressured by the morons to join their low-margin, silly bankruptcy-musical-chair-game. Who wants your millions of items of landfill and factories of exploitation? We don’t. We do not wish to join you in exploiting child labor or roaming the earth to find ever more vulnerable people to exploit. We do not wish to out pollute you and out-mine you. We do not wish to be responsible for the coming collapse.

We are a better way. Wholly different. Wholly new. We make meaningful things with precision that are unique to you. We make long-lasting items that can be repaired and improved. We make things when they are needed with little waste. We will not manufacturing a million items, schlep them around the world, and then toss half of them. We will make what you need when you need it. We will produce the new, the better, the improved and the future. We will not take your numbers but may take your profits. We will make consciously-chosen goods that are important for the few, not the flotsam and jetsam destined to clog rivers and pollute oceans.

Gradually, more and more will come to recognize that there is a better way, to make what is needed exactly as it should be. We will never be mainstream—to think that is to misunderstand what we are doing. We will change how to profitably produce better goods. Eventually, starting small, we will make almost all of the things that matter, precisely as they should be. And, depending on who you are, that should fill your heart with joy or terrify you.

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