You know that feeling when you think you’re well and truly over something — believing it is in the past? That’s where I believed the inflated hysteria and hype around 3D printing had been banished. Turns out, not so much and I have been conflating belief with hope. Looking back, the mainstream media hype and hysteria around 3D printing peaked around 2012-2014, when many with longevity in the industry did their utmost to push back. Reality seemed to bite, though and things calmed down a great deal — even to the point of “negative hype.”
Over recent weeks and months, an increasing number of hyped headlines about 3D printing have crept back into focus. Some of them are simply clickbait — inflated headlines to get that reader to click through to somewhat more measured content. Others, however, are purely uninformed hype, backed by equally uninformed content. Both are irritating and frustrating, but the latter is more insidious in nature.
For the record, I don’t particularly like being negative, it is not generally my default setting. However, I’ve noticed myself turning rather shrew-like on Twitter recently as I ignore the voice telling me not to bite at some of the ridiculous 3D printing headlines that are proliferating across news sites and their social media channels once again.
The dilemma of “ignore the nonsense” versus “call this out for what it is” is a problem. Ignoring it often seems the easier, if lazier option and certainly involves lower blood pressure. But, for whatever reason, I feel a certain sense of responsibility with this stuff. Not calling it out just feels wrong. Experience and history shows us that these headlines might work to increase the readership numbers across a 24 hour cycle for the media outlets publishing them, but they also jeopardize the real progress of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry by raising expectations beyond the realms of reality, which in turn invariably leads to disappointment and ultimately increased cynicism and lower rates of adoption.
Indeed, at the recent International Conference on AM and 3D Printing, Phil Reeves of Stratasys Expert Services made just this point and cited how he believed that the historical mainstream media hype problem from 3-5 years ago damaged the additive manufacturing industry. He specifically made the point that the promised “revolution” was a misnomer. Dr Reeves presentation was centred around the existing barriers to adoption, however his inclusion of the inflated press coverage of 3D printing back then was telling. He went on to point to the much more “conservative” reality of today — one where some truly great applications and many more mundane but business-boosting applications of additive manufacturing are being adopted across a plethora of industrial sectors.
At the same conference, it was also both inspiring and sobering to witness the presentation of Pete Basiliere of analyst and research firm Gartner. This is the firm that developed and published the now famous Gartner Hype Cycle, which it defines as a “graphical depiction of a common pattern that arises with [a] new technology or other innovation.”
It was interesting to hear Pete, during his presentation, say that: “actually it’s more of a wave than a cycle.” I’ve pondered that a few times over the years. And in the context of this article, even while I may be missing the point, I can’t help but note that waves and cycles both have a tendency to reoccur!
In a neat coincidence, however, Pete’s presentation coincided with the publication of the 2017 3D Printing Hype Cycle.
Image Credit: Gartner.
What the 3D printing hype cycle does is identify and break down many different sub-sectors of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry and illustrate where Gartner believes they exist on the ‘cycle’ on their way to mainstream adoption. Gartner qualifies this within five time stages that run across the bottom of the graph, namely the:
• Innovation trigger (including early R&D; first start-ups and VC funding; 1G products, early adopters).
• Peak of inflated expectations (including mass media pick-ups & hype; supplier and funding proliferation; wider adoption, beginning of negative press coverage).
• Trough of disillusionment (including supplier consolidation and failures; 2nd & 3rd round VC funding; and less than 5% potential adoption).
• Slope of enlightenment (including development of methodologies and best practices; 3G products).
• Plateau of productivity (high growth adoption).
The pertinent arc over this slide is “mainstream adoption.” Pertinent because when you are embedded in a technology sector and overly familiar with both terminology and applications it can become easy to forget the “worldview” perspective. That said, any activity that involves prediction cannot be taken as gospel — it is not an exact science.
Scrutinizing the 2017 Gartner Hype Cycle, I mostly found myself nodding, but there were also a few surprises and a couple of entries that really took me aback.
Absolutely no surprise that “Consumer 3D printing” is still sliding down into the trough of disillusionment. I suspect it will remain there longer than Gartner’s predicted 5-10 years. With no specific mention of the maker community, I also wonder if this prolific user group of the desktop FFF machines fit into this category. This active and growing community group remains an underrated anomaly within the 3D printing industry.
Stereolithography traversing down into the same trough is a surprise. As the original additive process, and one that has been applied across many industry sectors I truly expected this to be well on its way up the enlightenment slope, but Gartner currently has it well behind material extrusion, material jetting and binder jetting.
Again, no surprise at all that 3D printing for prototyping has reached the plateau of productivity. I doubt anyone can seriously question that prototyping remains the 3D printing industry’s most widespread application, with correlating acceptance and increasing uptake.
But in a nice little plot twist (I thought), 3D printing of hearing devices is the only category Gartner places ahead of prototyping. It’s a production application, moreover it is predominantly a plastic production application, but even that is undergoing a transition — to metal.
To sum up — if you take nothing else away from this post, please just keep it real. The reality of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry in 2017 is exciting — remaining challenges included. The hype doesn’t help anybody.