3D Printing has reached a fork in the road (and not a 3D Printed one)

It's Monday morning and I am going to be controversial. I think the adoption of 3D printing as a consumer technology remains slow and turgid. And this is a flummoxing fact given the grande fortissimo surrounding it.

I realise this is an incredibly unfashionable thing to say but, you know what, I think it is true.

 When President Obama said in his opening speech to Congress in 2013 "Workers are mastering the 3D Printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything," he fuelled even more hype about 3D printing. And stocks and shares must have gotten a tremendous boost as a result.


There is no doubt that this much lauded technology is the starlet of the industrial technological world. And it is already playing a major role in pioneering biomedical applications and advanced manufacturing.

But as a consumer technology it is noticeably absent.

 When one considers the reality of 3D printing in day to day life, the evidence is in stark contrast to the hype. Where exactly is it? Why can't we see it? Why has the technology not reached our homes, or indeed entered any part of our everyday lives?

 I am not being unsupportive of technological development for the sake of it. That is somewhat counter intuitive and negative. But I do think that it is fair to say that the growth of 3D printing as a consumer technology has been rather feeble, especially given its amazing popularity.

But there is hope. Tim Minshall, reader in Technology and Innovation Management  at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, in an interesting and inspiring presentation at the Cambridge Inkjet Interest Group, explained that all new inventions go through phases of hype. Whilst it may not be easy to explain why 3D Printing has not entered mainstream culture, understanding the hype is more straightforward. Over-inflation of hype when exciting technology triggers a collective imagination is normal. But even so, 3D Printing hype has reached Internet bubble sized proportions where the 'buzz' has become hugely disproportionate to the reality.

3D Printing hype, as Minshall explained has summited at 'the peak of inflated expectations' a phase that is part of Gartners Hype Cycle. This formative stage is where new technologies journey through on their way to discovering a true role and purpose.


Any disappointment about 3D Printing is because it is now on its descent into 'the trough of disillusionment.' 3D Printing has been in party mode for quite some time. So I guess it was only inevitable that it would experience an equally significant post party hangover.

A question for you. Do you know anyone who owns, let alone uses a 3D Print machine at home where you can print a fork or any other handy kitchen utensil? I don't. (And if I had a fork for the amount of dinner table chat about the fact that one day we will all be 3D printing out a fork, then I would have rather a lot of forks). And therein lies a key problem. Access to the technology is extremely limited. So it should come as no surprise that it hasn't developed any sense of reality. Because to all intents and purpose, it simply isn't real. It is talked about, mostly inaccurately and that is as far as it goes for most of us normal people.

For any new consumer technology, in order to refine its purpose, requires a set of believers who use, and develop the technology in ways that perhaps the inventors hadn't even intended. We witnessed this with the PC market, automobile, mountain bikes, smartphone applications (Steve jobs famously believed there was no market potential in apps), social media, open source software and plenty of other examples too numerous to list here. I really believe that it is the user who defines and then refines the technology. 3D printing oddly seems to have gone directly to a propriety model without having much of a period in a collaborative and 'open source' development stage.

People who play with 3D printing technology in their own home and time are a unique and select band of super-geeks. For the average Joe, the technology is miles off entering his home, his school, or even his retail world. The operating software alone takes a very high level of technical competence. Average Joe is more concerned with keeping up with the revolution in front of him, let alone the one that might be occurring, or might not, a few years down the road.

3D Printing as far as I can tell, is approaching a rather critical fork in the road. I think the questions we should be asking are: Will 3D Printing ever be a realistic consumer technology, and more importantly does it ever need to be? 3D Printing is already an established industrial technology and is used for very short run production of specialist components , biomedical solutions and is a superb design and prototype technology. No question.

For all its much heralded potential to transform our lives, 3D Printing is yet to find its place in our lives. I have no doubt that it will become more widespread eventually, we just don't know where or when. It could organically develop with a community of early adopters as Rogers refers to, but it really hasn't done that yet.

But whatever happens, I really rather hope that we (society) won't be marvelling at how wonderfully useful it is to be able to 3D print a fork. Largely, I contest, as it isn't really that helpful to be completely honest. We need to ask ourselves, just how often do we run out of forks?! Do we really need to print another one?

And I hope, as a consumer technology, it will have a larger contribution to make to our lives than that.

Source: Tim Minshall's Presentation at the Ink Jet Interest Group Meeting 28th January

Gartner's Hype Cycle

3D Printing begins its descent into the trough of disillusionment
3D Printing begins its descent into the trough of disillusionment
Closing in on the peak of inflated expectations
Closing in on the peak of inflated expectations
3D Printing mid way up the peak
3D Printing mid way up the peak