I hope Bre Pettis of Makerbot doesn't mind me quoting him for the title of this post. I was watching the CNET video, again, of his and Cathy Lewis' joint interview (face-off actually), which was hosted during the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Bre delivered this line towards the end of the 17 minute video, which I would recommend, and it struck a chord, because I have been saying much the same thing in a bid to counter the hype surrounding 3D printing. The excitement, the promotion and the evangelising are all great to see as the 3D printing mantra spreads, these are staples of my daily existence, but the hype needs to be neutralised — by reason and by reality.
The CNET video can be viewed here: http://cnettv.cnet.com/future-3d-printing/9742-1_53-50118533.html
Above and beyond the fantastic fact that both 3D Systems and Makerbot were extremely visible on the show floor at CES, getting hoards of visitors together with a great deal of press attention, remains the grounding fact that we are, indeed, just at the beginning. 2012 is going to be another exciting year for the 3D printing sector — but it will not be the year that millions of consumers will put a 3D printer onto their 'to buy' lists. I've documented the reasons why in previous posts, and comments on other people's posts. But we are edging closer. Makerbot and 3D Systems are, in no small way, contributors to this movement forwards. While they have the media's attention, it is important to stress that they are not the only companies doing great things with and for 3D printing, but they do personify the trends that are emerging.
For many years I have expounded the divergence in the 3D printing / Additive Manufacturing sector, visible from those two terms - the personal manufacturing vision with 3D printing versus the industrial vision with additive manufacturing. The chasm between these two application areas is increasing all of the time, and rightly so. Consumer products, whether practical or decorative, designed for 3D printing with consumer-enabled customisation, will flourish and thrive and savvy creative individuals are already creating businesses based on this model. There are many, but a nice example that springs to mind, is Michiel Cornelissen (@michiel_ontwerp), a designer with a range of jewellery on Shapeways' website, who tweeted recently: "My monthly @shapeways payments are beginning to look suspiciously like an income. [the] 3D printing economy is here."
But while this consumer facing model is expanding, almost daily it seems, with creatives such as Michiel, validating the 3D printing possibilities of today, the industrial users of additive manufacturing are going from strength to strength also. And, I am sure this will continue, because regardless of whether personalised manufacturing becomes a reality or not, consumers, en masse, are unlikely to ever make their own cars, aeroplanes, medical devices / equipment, and national defence equipment etc. Nor should they, IMO. This needs qualified, experienced and informed manufacturing companies that are subjected to rigorous testing standards and security. Incidentally, it is this differentiation that will also come into play on the fractious issue of firearms, I believe. Off on a bit of a tangent here, but there are voices that claim that personalised 3D printing is bad because it means that criminals and terrorists can design and build whatever they need to carry out their villainy. I'm not buying this! There is evil in this world, there has been from the beginning of time and there will be until the end of time, and the perpetrators of such evil find a way through the barriers of civilised society, I don't think 3D printing will enable or disable them more or less than they are now, to be frank.
And back to the main thread — where we have individual creative makers and small start ups versus different industry sectors, all making different grades of additive technology work for them. Right now, it is happening and the market is growing steadily.
The claims for the future potential of 3D printing as a mass consumer technology is also stregthening. I am a (100%) believer, have been for years, but it's a while away yet. Broken record, I know, but I do have to keep saying it — it is not just around the corner, hence the title of the post. My bet is placed on 15-20 years, maybe longer. In the meantime, what watching the CNET video did clarify for me is the very different approaches to achieving this goal. On the one side we have the corporate giant with structure, IP and implemented strategy to attain corporate goals and on the other the passion and inspiration of a community leader, for who, it has to be said, 3D printing is a way of life. Only this morning, Deelip Menezes, commented to me that the video highlights the huge difference in the target audience of the two printers. I can't agree — both Cathy and Bre were at pains to convey that their respective printers were for "everyone". They both have the same target audience — EVERYONE. The difference, apart from the machines themselves, is how they talk to them, convince them and convert them to using 3D printers.
Currently, to use a 3D printer, you need technical knowledge — to design for it, to set it up, to make it run properly and to keep it running properly. This is a fact, and anyone that says different is hyping up the technology or process they are talking about. Part of the current appeal for creative users of 3D printing that are also tagged as makers, hackers and so forth is the technology itself, and making it work for them. I see this as an interim stage, that will co-exist with the later stage of consumer use. But for consumers to use this technology en masse what is required, apart from the documented plug and play usability, improved materials and lower capital cost, is a social change. This won't happen quickly. It needs education, which will breed know-how and familiarity across a couple of generations. Only then will 3D printing truly filter through to everyone.