3D printed houses, 3D printed (super)cars, 3D printed bridges, 3D printed brains ….. I could go on (and on!) referencing the questionable headlines that have appeared across various media channels this past year or more.
To be clear, I do not doubt that there are some innovative individuals pushing the boundaries of additive technologies with some astounding applications. These provide inspiration and raise awareness — both positive things in and of themselves. However, we must return to the problem with many of the headlines and much of the marketing around 3D printing and additive manufacturing at the moment, in that it gives the false impression that 3D printing technologies can do much more than is `actually possible. This is the core of the problem when it comes to inflating expectations of businesses and individuals learning about the tech, followed by the inevitable disappointment when the reality does not meet these expectations. In isolation, disappointment is a fact of life and dealing with it an important lesson, but here, in this context, it can and indeed is, causing problems that are restricting the uptake of additive technologies for industrial applications. The disappointment is leading to a resistance to adopt additive technologies for applications where it could actually shine and bring companies the benefits of better products at reduced cost.
This is not a new problem, of course, and the deflated stock prices over the past 12 months are a reflection of this, but recently I have heard about a number of actual applications that would / could / probably should be using additive manufacturing were it not for this phenomenon.
As I see it, the car/house/bridge/brain etc headlines are getting people excited, eliciting great enthusiasm, bringing hundreds of thousands of click-throughs for certain sites and, indeed, to some degree helping to spread awareness about innovative technology being used for innovative applications. However, these headlines do not belie the reality of the applications whereby 3D printing is only a part of the solution. Today, there is no house, car, bridge, plane, brain — or any other complicated, multi-component, large-scale application — that relies 100% on 3D printing as the production method. Most of the applications don’t even reach 50% utilization; but, until that part of the story is relayed — reliably, consistently and enthusiastically — resistance to the technology will continue from potential users that can benefit from it.
Recently I have seen two different additive manufacturing machines in-situ within manufacturing environments for very different applications. In both cases this 21st century tech was sat alongside much older, still relevant traditional manufacturing equipment. It brings with it new capabilities and thus innovative additions to the existing product ranges and services of the two companies, enabling them to offer their clients more. More innovation, more efficiency and more cost savings — with minimal, if negligible, risk and much to gain. However, in one instance in particular the company was fighting a losing battle in terms of converting potential clients to a better and more cost-effective way of doing things. Even with the evidence in their hands, and impressed with the results, they would not move away from the traditional way of doing things! Of course this is their prerogative, but why, even with solid evidence, are companies that can benefit from AM still resisting?
One reason certainly seems to be “why reinvent the wheel” type attitudes, but it seems to run deeper than that as well. In one case reported to me, a one (or even three)-off demo piece is all very well, but apparently there is a future-looking fear at the heart of the resistance. “Can you guarantee that it won’t fail – 5/10/20 years down the line?” Well, no, as there are no standards or precedents that can be used to counter this argument, even though, as in this case, there are no standards for the traditional method for this application. But what there is, is a 50+ year history of precedents and unfailing parts.
So it seems we’re fighting history folks, and fear of the unknown, as well as the on-going battle with the hype. It’s not an easy battle but it is one that I believe, if we all play our part in it, with honesty and determination, we can win.