When we compare to just a year or two ago, it seems obvious that 3D printing today has finally hit the mainstream.
Apart from the many write-ups, the latest TV show to feature 3D printing is the UK's 'Home of the Future' which airs on C4 over the next five weeks. The reality show charts the story of the Perera family whose home was gutted and then stocked with the latest cutting edge technologies from a robot lawn mower to a soil-free vegetable growing machine. One of the highlights of the show is their very own Objet30 desktop 3D printer which the family uses to produce a range of household utensils.
Of course, there are plenty out there who would point out the obvious problems with the 'Home of the Future' analogy. And I tend to agree with many of them. Christopher Mims in his article 'Why 3D Printing Will Go the Way of Virtual Reality' raises the obvious concerns with what we could call the 'home' model: To assume that 3D printing will be able to replace manufacturing one-for-one in any medium-term timeframe and within the current technological framework is simply unrealistic. I would agree with this. 3D printing in its current form has already been around for over twenty years and hasn't changed much in its basic concept during that time. The additive layering process remains 'additive' - a process that's still far less efficient at mass producing goods than traditional 'cut and assembly' manufacturing and is more suited to customized production or rapid prototyping. And the materials, mostly plastics in one form or another, would have a hard time replacing all of the consumables that an average household uses today.
That said of course, there's also the counter to this argument, presented lucidly by Tim Maly in 'Why 3D Printing Isn't Like Virtual Reality'. In this article he compares 3D printing to the evolution of 2D printing, showing how the massive printing mills of a century ago evolved into the very affordable and compact desktop printers that are ubiquitous to homes and offices today. And of course, 3D printing has already developed along an evolutionary trajectory, as I pointed out a while back in my post comparing how far Objet's 3D printers have come in the last 12 years. As well as smaller, faster and more versatile 3D printing machines, we also see a revolution occurring in 3D printing materials. Who would have thought even two years ago that photopolymers would be able to functionally perform like engineering plastics? To be able to 3D print a chair capable of supporting 100kg is no small feat for a liquid resin and it's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what photopolymer / inkjet 3D printing will achieve in the years to come.
But there's a third argument as well, just slightly off to the side of these two. And that is that perhaps 3D printing was never really destined for the home. After all, how many homes today even have a 2D printer? I know mine doesn't. Thanks to the internet revolution, e-mail has made paper communication largely redundant anyway. But even on the odd chance that I might actually need some paper printing done, like most people, I would simply take it to the office printer!
And this leads me neatly on to my next point - that rather than the home, the natural environment for the 3D printer in future will be the office, and particularly smaller offices that until today, were unable to afford the larger, industrial machines. A 3D printer will eventually be found in every office in every company that has a need to rapidly and effectively visualize or prototype a product before it goes to production.
But you don't really have to look that far ahead because it's already here. A quiet revolution has been underway for years in virtually every industry that designs and produces real products. I'm allowed to say, for example, that Objet 3D printers can be found in many of the brand-name Fortune 500 companies. Working diligently behind the scenes, 3D printers are being used in the planning of virtually every common product available today, from shoes to cars to telephones to toys and furniture and electronics and even to dental implants and surgical guides. So the 'office model' is already a fact.
But even though, I'm still hesitant to completely write off the 'home model' just yet. The truth is that there are great and many factors that will determine the technological content of our lives in the years ahead. Economics, demographics, natural resources, shifting centers of wealth, fashion, politics. All of these play a role in shaping consumer supply and demand.
What will consumer demands count for, for example, if more western economies go the way of Greece? What sort of manufactured products will we see disappearing from shelves just a few years from now when countries like Germany and Sweden are populated mostly by over 60's? And what products will will see in their stead? What if tomorrow China decides to stop bankrolling American consumer spending altogether and opts to divert its massive industrial output to feed domestic demand? Or what happens when in twenty years many of the natural resources that go into traditional consumer goods become too expensive to mine or simply run out altogether? In many of these scenarios 3D printing could be forced into a much more substantive roll than it plays today. Or not.
The bottom line is that it's still just a little bit too early to say for sure. I recently finished reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. It was a fascinating read, but what particularly stood out for me was how difficult it can be to predict the future of technology, even when it's sometimes staring you in the face. In one classic line, one of Apple's top executives states with certainty that computers will never penetrate the consumer market. Embarrassingly for the owner of that opinion, that line was said not in the 1970's or even 80's but actually in the 90's.
Truth, it seems, passes through 3 stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is fiercely and violently opposed. Third, it becomes self-evident.
My only question now is, what stage are we currently witnessing for 3D printing?