Having posted on the RP-ML (rapid prototyping - mailing list) fairly late yesterday evening in response to an extremely interesting thread (that got started as the result of a benign, but slightly distasteful offer by an RP-ML member to supply an stl file of the would-be Detroit bomber's face) I found myself unable to sleep in the early hours of this morning as I debated the future of 3D printing and additive manufacturing — with myself.
And, oh yes, I am more than aware of how sad that is!!!!
In my post, I stated that I no longer believed that we would one day see a 3D printer in every home — with people ordering any stl file they may wish from the internet, of any given consumer product or replacement part. This vision has been greatly expounded during the last decade by many excited individuals prophetically revealing the future of 3D printing, myself among them at one time. I had since arrived at a more balanced view that this was unlikely, because as much as it sounds like a good idea, the concept of millions of households trying to 'print' 3D products in polymers, metals or any other material was simply unrealistic. Most lay people struggle with getting Word and A4 paper to do what they want without wanting to throw the devices through a window, much less manipulate stl files and get the desired result from a 3D printer in the desired material(s).
However, my post also applauded the enlightened approach of spreading the word about 3D printing by putting the technology into the hands of students — not just those at university — but children as young as 5, as I mentioned in yesterday's post. It's already happening here in the UK. You may have picked up on the fact that I think this is a really great way of channelling young people towards the fields of design and engineering. However, the thing that was keeping me awake last night was the thought that if we keep doing it, and in a few generations time 3D printing (and other advanced technologies such as 3D CAD, rendering, 3D Scanning and simulation/VR etc) become common place in our schools, and children are happily familiar with them, why would they not be confident about having them at home as and when they acquire their own homes?
So, have I come full circle? Am I back to thinking that the potential for this technology is as big as I once believed, in terms of the target market being anyone and everyone, rather than the more tempered opinion of it being relevant to every company that is involved with developing new products?
Well, it was 2.30 am, and despite the passing of time I am not sure which way I'm going on this yet. In reality, I'll probably traverse a few more circles, maybe engage in some heated debates as there are strong feelings on both sides of this argument, but the answer is probably not going to emerge in my life time, I do like being a part of the history though!!
Incidentally, the RP-ML is a great forum — it can go quiet for months at a time, but when it kicks off, it really kicks off. There are many knowledgeable individuals on there, many from the earliest days of RP, some that believe it will solve all the world's problems and some so cynical I laugh out loud as I read their posts. I highly recommend it for anyone involved with, or interested in, any type of additive processes.