3D Printing´s Tip of the Iceberg Problem, Part 1


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We’ve got a rather peculiar problem in Additive. I call this the tip of the iceberg problem and it stems from seven distinct factors. The high degree of strategic replication in Additive, a lack of disclosure in settings, procedures and skills; the NDA-ification of explorative work, Universities who are more interested in IP than sharing knowledge, government work, successful things being kept secret and niche things being much more prevalent than industry actors could possibly think.

The Iceberg inhibits our understanding of the state of Additive. It creates information asymmetries in our industry. Furthermore it also limits our ability to grow. Through a lack of holistic understanding software companies don’t build the right tools, materials firms don’t develop the right materials and entrepreneurs don’t build the right startups. Even OEMs who are well connected often lack certain key facts in valuable applications which means that machines are often not made in an optimal way. A lack of coordination often makes this problem worse Overall the allocation of capital, attention and effort could be vastly improved.

The Problem

The crux of it is that as a collective we can only see the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of parts made, progress made and very profitable applications is being kept from the whole. We are not one market with a lot of shared information but we obsess over every morsel which then becomes sacrament. We focus so much on orthopedics, jigs and fixtures and shoes because those are things we can talk about. These things then get mentioned and discussed by all before they are institutionalized. The morsel is the sacrament and new machines, materials and ideas are focused on that, not what really matters. I’m not saying that orthopedics isn’t a great market but there is so much more out there that people are not talking about. It often takes us years to mention sensors, antenna, batteries and more.

I’m not trying to complain here, I understand that proprietary knowledge is often necessary and how it can lead to profit as well. I also understand that secrets are necessary for other reasons as well. But, I need to point this problem out because it is leading to misunderstandings and missed opportunities. I also don’t know how we can ameliorate this issue. But, I do know we have to be cognizant of it in order to flourish. Rather fittingly it was maddeningly difficult to write this article because just so many of the applications, procedures and knowledge that is behind closed doors prevented me from explaining this well. The main thing to illustrate my point is that I couldn’t really illustrate this article with colorful examples because it is this things that are secret. Hence the pictures of the icebergs. Hell, hence the iceberg metaphor too.

Strategic Replication

I’ll talk about this more elsewhere but thanks to a friend I´ve really been able to realize just how many people in additive are focusing on the same few applications. Just how myopic we are in the way we do business development. We are all doing more or less the same machines, materials and ways of finding applications. We’re also seeing the same things and a choir erupts amplifying the same reverberations. We’re like an echo reinforcing itself through infinity. In this case this is both an end result of our Iceberg Problem and a contributing cause at the same. A narrow focus on the same companies, customers, materials, business cases, go to markets and the like means that we are compounding our misunderstanding. A false note is sung by all and echoes into the ears of new arrivals.

A lack of disclosure in settings, procedures and skills

If Tim is the only one that understands the machine he could spend his days falling behind on doing what his bosses want: production. Instead he could train his coworkers, document his actions, teach and in so doing make himself dispensable. He could invest his time in making it so that he could be fired. We can all understand why he does not. Why it serves him is obvious and we can understand his actions. The more mystical and magical the machine, skill, procedure, settings or software the higher the employability of the magician and the higher his fees. I´ve often run around big companies and realized, “if Paula leaves, we’re all screwed.” Whole companies also believe that their particular way of doing something is the key to their success. Sometimes it may be. Sometimes a design methodology or procedure is unique and gives them an advantage. Often things would just be better for everyone if we shared more information. In the Iceberg Problem the desire to be mysterious, the desire to have magic means that there is a lot of fog, misunderstanding and inefficiency.

The NDA-ification of Explorative Work

A young startup, idea heavy, optimistic and full of energy gets approached by a giant firm on a super exciting project. Both sides work hard but ultimately it doesn’t come to market. These kinds of Hail Mary Proof of Concept explorations fail much more often than people realize. Subsequently the startups knowledge gleaned in making extrusion nozzles for ice cream production is forever lost. Kept behind contracts and a fear of the large company. The same goes with a lot of work done under reflexive NDA´s that are often nosensical. I understand the need to want to keep things secret and the need to not want to let critical information seep out of a company. But, we need to know that ice cream nozzles may be amazing but only one firm has really tried it and it only failed because Gary in corporate hated the idea.


We can see so far that secrecy and a tendency to approach the market in the same way really limit our understanding of additive. In the next installment we will look into more elements of the Iceberg Problem.

Images by Ravas51, Ravas51 and Ravas51.

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