Tech News Today host Tom Merritt brought up the outlook for 3D printing in their year end Forecast Show – the technology continued go get a lot of press in 2012 and Mr. Merritt’s outlook for 2013 was optimistic but measured. I think he’s right to be measured, and that we’re still a good 12 years away from seeing significant adoption of 3D printing in an industrial setting.
We’re really bad at forecasting how industrial technologies are adopted. It is always great to see industrial technologies get covered alongside their more glittery information tech colleagues on shows like this. However, even the most high profile industrial technologies such as batteries and cleantech in general are still over-covered and over-hyped. We’re used to technologies following a hype cycle – industrial technologies seem to do even worse than others.
The Gartner Hype Cycle is a great framework for explaining new technologies and how they are adopted. We’re still really bad at forecasting most technologies, but with many areas of IT, particularly those that are more consumer focused, we’ve gotten better at understanding when something is over-hyped and hasn’t yet reached its full potential.
Industrial technologies move slowly. It takes them longer to get adopted and it takes them longer to reach the plateau of productivity – the point at which they are no longer viewed as ‘new’ and at which point they are as widely adopted as the early promoters had anticipated they would be.
There aren’t many playbooks for how to win in industrial technologies. Because they are slow moving their adoption often spans the careers of many individual contributors. We know the stories of the great winners like Ford, Edison or Wallace Carothers with Nylon. But even though the automobile, electricity and modern chemistry are at their heart industrial goods with heavy industry behind them – much of their success came from identifying consumer markets with low price point high performance goods that benchmarked well to current consumer needs. Ford beat out the horse and buggy with improved reliability and speed. Edison brought light to the home that was cheaper and far safer than the dangerous gas lighting of the time. Military needs gave Nylon its market share, but improved durability gave the polymer its initial beachhead market in ladies stockings.
What is that beachhead market and application for 3D printers? Enthusiasts and hobbyists don’t fit the modern definition of a market – as defined by Moore’s Crossing the Chasm as buyers who can reference one another in a known application. Right now there is no clear market fit for 3D printing – it is a lower capex option for people who need to make extruded products for low quantity or custom product runs.
3D printing’s strengths are in areas where there aren’t many products – it enables things that are intriguing, but not immediately useful. Every article you see shows a pretty trinket or references high end toy manufacturing. Baubles are not markets. For 3D printing to make it, there will need to be reference designs, known good products and eager end markets that require its use.
My prediction is that it isn’t until 2025 that 3D printing products are in regular use in automobile lines selling over 50,000 units per year or electronic goods selling over 200,000 units per year. With a lot of work and good fortune, management of these printers might be able to pull that in by 8 years at the most.
March 2013 Update
There have been several other blog posts outlining and/or agreeing with this thesis, although their continue to be many that believe 3D printers are the next “Big Thing.” This post by @JonasBentzen outlines the challenges created from size and the numerous types of raw material inputs needed. Make Magazine – which is a frequently cited proponent of 3D printers is doing the best it can to dampen the wild oscillation of the Hype Cycle with this article about the Complex Reality of 3D Printing. Make cites the difficulties of learning CAD software, the challenges of mechanical engineering and the same challenges of multiple materials inputs referenced in the Jonas Bentzen blog.
April 2013 Update
Here’s a great GigaOm article titled, “3-D Printing: Putting a Factory on Every Corner”, in which the author makes use of some great research by Gartner showing that the costs of the printing setups will fall dramatically through 2016. What the author misses is that factories require inputs and complex supply chains – for us to find 3D printers on every corner in 3 years, we’ll need logistics and IT infrastructure that can get raw materials of sufficient quality to each of those printers. The infrastructure for this vision to be achieved is still a long way away.
June 2013 Update
“3D Printing Arbitrage is the New Hotness” screams a June 21 TechCrunch article which provides some insight into the current state of the industry. Shapeways is focused on being vertically integrated. MakerBot has an estimated 22,000 units in the field. Major retailers like Tesco and Staples are discussing putting units in their stores, similar to the way they brought in conventional paper copying and printing activities. The article focuses on businesses that are attempting to earn revenue by matching those in need of 3D printing services and those who have the printers – no mention is made of what kinds of things they’ll make.
Interesting addition from Tech News Today, Episode 784, a video report (below) that mentions that there are many 3D printers at a Microsoft hosted event, “but are these just going to go the way of the 3D television?” The hosts were enthusiastic this wasn’t the case – with Iyaz Akhtar stating, “3D printers will be like the photograph printers – some people will have them, but a lot of people won’t.”