Got to be honest – it has been a bit of an up and down couple of weeks for me. Went through a not insignificant down period, when I was questioning the whole 3D printing thing. Not the technologies themselves, obviously, they are still real, they are still evolving apace, and sales of machines across the board are still increasing.
So, why the downer? Sometimes, doing what I do, I get the feeling that I am just banging my head against a brick wall and only preaching to the converted! It’s happened before, and I’m sure it will happen again. It is par for the course really [do you like my timely golf analogy as a hat tip to the British Open?] as a commentator in the 3D printing space when there are weeks that you can see huge leaps and bounds forward that are so exciting and uplifting and other weeks when I really do wonder if anything I say actually makes a difference, and, if it is time to get a proper job!?
Don’t worry, this is not a self-pity party! I am just using these personal experiences to highlight the reality of an emerging technology. And make no mistake, 3D printing is still an emerging technology.
I have had a few conversations in the last couple of weeks that have reiterated that the full potential of 3D printing is not even close to being realized today. And that the technology processes and platforms that exist today will be regarded as quaint, archaic artifacts that point to how the pioneers of this technology for mainstream makers and consumers worked with rudimentary equipment as they developed and progressed the technology itself and applications.
The most recent conversation was particularly enlightening, I think maybe because it was so unexpected, and it taught me that preaching to the converted is not necessarily such a bad thing.
Heading down to London for some much needed training on WordPress, I was intrigued to discover that the person conducting the training, like me, is a freelancer, but unlike me, he has a number of strings to his bow. Alex supplies website design and coding services — no surprise, based on why we were there. He is also a freelance industrial designer and the Designer in Residence at Glasgow School of Art, where his responsibilities include teaching 3D CAD and consultation on 3D printing and CNC machining.
Needless to say, even as Alex displayed endless patience with regard to our primary purpose, we often got sidetracked with conversations about 3D printing and its application in the real world. As we debated what it could do now and the limitations it presented, particularly in terms of surface finish and strength, and even understanding these limitations as I do, some of Alex’s opinions really shocked me, including the fact that he viewed even some of the most sophisticated industrial 3D printers as wholly deficient. Furthermore, I had the strong impression that Alex viewed my ideological views rather skeptically. At the end of the day, having accomplished a satisfactory result in terms of using the WordPress CMS, it transpired we would be taking the same tube journey and we continued our conversation about 3D printing for prototyping applications and mainstream / consumer adoption. Alex, a pragmatist, was adamant that it will never be a household tool, although he did express his vision for 3D printers as toys within some households. I challenged his use of the word ‘never’! When I backed this up with my own forecasts with nano materials and my predicted timeline for 3D printers, in a form unrecognizable today, becoming a true plug and play device, I think I gave him some food for thought.
I have tried to avoid predictions for the future recently in a bid to eschew hype and speculation, but in an emerging sector, it is inevitable and in some cases, desirable, I find. So long as I keep moving forward, at this time, I’m not sure it matters if it’s a cyclic motion.