No technology, ignoring perhaps each new iPhone, has had as much hype over the last few years as 3D printing.
I’m as guilty as anyone. Nearly two years ago now I predicted that one of the big printer manufacturers would jump into the market and bring an entry level, sub £400 printer to the high street. I’m still waiting and I’m still baffled as to why HP, a company desperately in need of a win, has yet to take ownership of the consumer and small business 3D printing market. As I’ve suggested before, all I think it would take to succeed would be for
For all the demonstrations, few products beyond the prototype stage are 3D printed today. Much of our ‘stuff’ (a technical term) continues to be knocked out in factories loaded with human workers in lower-cost parts of the world.
Tonight I’m chairing a debate about 3D printing at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of Manchester Science Festival. Reading through the notes I sent the other panellists in advance, I realised something: my questions are resolutely positive. About the practicalities and the possibilities. They address the thinking behind the hype but not a crucial question: if the potential is so great, why isn’t this field a bigger deal yet?
Why has 3D printing been so heavily hyped? In part it is because of the sci-fi factor — the same reason that the Hendo Hoverboard got so much attention last week. 3D printers are the closest thing we have today to a Star Trek replicator.
But more than that is the scale of the opportunity. The opportunity to transform the economics of supply and retail. Imagine you can 3D print anything: clothes, cars, phones, windows and doors, tables and chairs. None of these things is beyond the bounds of possibility. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because of this huge potential that progress has been relatively slow.
Imagine what it does to the companies who currently supply all of these products if suddenly all the added value work happens in the consumer’s home or work place. If suddenly all they’re selling is intellectual property, and even that is hard to maintain in the face of open-sourced designs for everything from desks to double-glazing, houses to heart-valves. Imagine the changes in global supply chains if suddenly we’re moving a small number (but great quantities) of basic feedstocks instead of a vast number of finished items. What do shops look like if products are printed on demand? What do people do with less stuff to make, move and sell?
These are all pure hypotheticals based on a very black-and-white (i.e unrealistic) view of the future. The reality will be much more nuanced. For example, there are some products it will make more sense to manufacture in bulk in one place for some time to come. The imbalanced nature of global wealth means that human beings will remain cheaper than robots for some roles for the foreseeable future.
Nonetheless, even as a pure thought experiment it presents a terrifying scope. If a start-up were to approach a venture capital firm with this as their goal they would be accused of trying to ‘boil the ocean’. With big printing players like HP perhaps lacking in a little confidence after some difficult years, maybe they too are scared of tackling such a massive opportunity.