#3DPrinting is a revolution. Just not the revolution you think it is.

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I am wearing a 3D printed object right now: my wedding ring is made out of precious metal and is attractive, elegant, well designed, durable, valuable, and something I hope to still have 50 years from now.

And that’s odd, because most of the 3D printed objects you read about are cheap, ugly, and plastic. Calling them trinkets would be too charitable: the word that seems to fit best is ‘tchotchkes.’ The media focus on 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing, or AM) has been on the idea of a “new technology that promises a factory in every home.” Like a Star Trek Replicator, these devices will soon be ubiquitous, and we will all be printing out our own light switches and cutlery. Not to mention hot Earl Grey tea.

That’s not going to happen. Why?

#1 Too damn finicky: A society where most people can’t be bothered to sharpen their own knives won’t have the patience to learn how to set up a 3D printer and operate it properly. A Facebook friend of mine bought her own machine recently, and has been documenting her adventure on a blog. Hats off to Michelle, but page after page of not preheating the platform properly, buying a new platform material, coating it with glue, the extruder jamming, the object lifting off the platform before it is done…all in order to make a plastic moustache cookie cutter? The machines will require less consumer calibration one day, but in my view not at a reasonable price point within the next 5-10 years. In the meantime, for every Michelle who is willing to tinker there will be 99 people who would quit in frustration: hardly a factory in EVERY home. (I can’t find the source, but I once heard that the majority of power drills were only used once. And they are much easier to use than today’s consumer 3D printers.)

#2 “Plasticky” is not a good thing: Almost all home 3D printers use one of two plastics (ABS or PLA) that come in spools of filament. Plastic melts easily, the layers adhere well, and it is fairly cheap, which is important when you take dozens of tries to get your moustache cookie cutter just right. But while you may think that the cookie cutter is just a fun thing to learn how to make, and the 3D printer will soon be making much more practical objects, that’s not true. There really aren’t that many things most people need in their lives that are best made out of ABS or PLA, and can’t be bought at your local store faster, cheaper and better.

There are 3D printers that work in metal. But a decent one that can make nicely finished objects of a reasonable size costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions. That price will come down a bit over time, but will still not be at the ‘factory in every home’ level within the next 10 years. Maybe 20! Just to give you some idea, only 348 3D printers that make metal objects were sold in 2013.

Next, even the metal ones only work in certain kinds of metals. As an example, if you go to this website, you might get excited that you can make 3D printed parts out of gold! Not so fast: here is what actually happens:

“Gold models are 3D printed using a complex five-step process. First, the model is printed in wax using a specialized high-resolution 3D printer. It is then put in a container where liquid plaster is poured in around it. When the plaster sets, the wax is melted out in a furnace, and the remaining plaster becomes the mold.”

That’s cool (and more on this later) but the objects themselves are not 3D printed out of gold – only the wax molds are.

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#3 “Anyone can be a designer” is a hideous lie: The current problems around materials and ease of use will get better over time. But most people have the design talent of a dead stoat. Can a society where millions of people still use Comic Sans be trusted to design their own cutlery? Even if I wanted to design my own spoons (and I never have) my experiences with trying to make things out of wood, clay, paint, Lego, plasticine, or even papier-mâché have shown me that I am not very good at this kind of thing. Even after I taught my fingers how to usefully fabricate an object, my BRAIN doesn’t have the talent to make an adequate object, let alone a beautiful one.

I am not the only one. A recent Globe and Mail article described this phenomenon perfectly:

“Then the piece was printed and my pride was pricked. Rather than epic, the key chain looked jagged and silly. On my laptop screen, I could blow my model up so it looked imposing and impressive and huge. In real life, my dream skyscraper was a sad, little grey lump… A quickly dashed sense of euphoria would be familiar to any industrial designer. Professionals frequently switch between loving and loathing the object they’re creating. The difference between an expert and an amateur, though, is that a pro will keep pushing for perfection. But I don’t have the time or humility or even inclination to keep going – do I even need another key chain?”

Hey. You promised us a revolution – stop being such a downer!

Now it gets good. The future of 3D printing is huge and transformative. But it isn’t about plastic key chains or toys. Some of it does involve small plastic objects: most companies that are using 3D printers today are using them for rapid prototyping. Design a new rear view mirror, print it out in a few hours, and see how it looks on the car or in the wind tunnel. Faster, better and cheaper than how they used to do it. Some are also using one of those 348 metal printers to make advanced aerospace parts. But most consumers (and even most companies) have no need for rapid prototyping or jet engines.

In my view, the biggest potential for 3D printing is in enabling those who DO have design talent to more effectively compete with larger players. And not by using 3D printers alone, but as only one part of the manufacturing process.

Barbara and I recently renewed our wedding vows, and we asked Tara and Courtney Neray of Slashpile Designs to make them for us. I didn’t know it at the time, but they used 3D printers:

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“These pieces were super interesting to work on because they really used such a perfect combination of new technology and traditional jewellery techniques. We first modeled the rings in CAD, without the texture. In this step, we create a file for each ring that is sized to the customer. Each file is 3-D printed in wax and then cast in the metal of choice (18 karat white gold in this case!)”

The first key aspect is that the Additive Manufacturing technology is only part of the process: 3D printing dovetails perfectly with many existing manufacturing techniques. That may disappoint the Star Trek purists, but it actually means that 3D printing will be huge. New technologies that work with existing processes almost always are adopted more rapidly than those that require entirely new ways of doing things.

But why is it a revolution? Historically, a couple of 20-something designers can’t do a lot of custom work fast, or maintain large inventories of many models. I can walk into a large jeweller, see a ring I like, and say “give it to me in a size 7.5” and walk out with a ring in my pocket, or perhaps a week later at most. The Slashpile entrepreneurs can’t keep a supply of finished precious metal rings in dozens of sizes, and they probably can’t even have a full stock of casting molds in the most common sizes made ahead of time.

But with 3D printers, they can make me a custom pair of rings in about a week. Additive manufacturing solves a particular pain point in the manufacturing chain, and dramatically levels the playing field between large manufacturers and the start-up in the garage. Just as PC technology narrowed the gap between the mainframe computer makers and the kids in the Silicon Valley garage.

The story above was about jewelry, but the exact same barriers and solutions exist in multiple industries, and 3D printing – as part of the existing manufacturing process – will be a critical tool.

Welcome to the revolution.

[My Deloitte colleague Eric Openshaw has an article on 3D printing on LinkedIn. It is a short-but-great read, and makes similar points. Here’s my favourite quote:

“In addition, AM makes the supply chain more flexible and agile. Product life cycles are shortening, which puts a premium on speed to market. Since the initial costs can be lower than those of traditional manufacturing, AM can offer competitive per-unit costs at levels below the scale required by traditional manufacturing.”]

 

[Edited to add. I realise that my comments about my friend Michelle Toy could be misinterpreted. Although I don’t think her 3D printer will become ‘the factory in her home’ either, she is out there learning about additive manufacturing in a very real and hands-on way. Leaning any skill is good for you, and good for your brain, and almost always useful.

Back in 1984 my father was teaching a course at BCIT on microprocessors and computers. Early days! He needed someone to build, test and program the machines his class was going to use, and he asked me to do it. I learned how to solder better, how to read resistors, played around with DIP switches and even programmed in hexadecimal. Those machines are less than toys today…but the knowledge I acquired has helped me at least once per month in the 30 years since then.]

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