Is 3D Printing A Disruptive Technology?

No, I think it is not! Not today. In the 3D Printing scene, a blog post from Robert Mitchell called 3D Printing: A technology awaits its Ipad Moment is making rounds. In this post he argues that 3D printing is not ready yet. He gives two reasons: the first is that 3D printing is too expensive, and second lack of imagination because 3D design software is too complex at this moment. I do not agree. Those are not the reasons why 3D printing is not (yet) mainstream.

Technology can only be truly disruptive when it either creates a new market or (almost) downright replaces an existing market. That is not happening yet, but it can be. As Robert Mitchell writes “As with the tablet PC, 3D printing technology awaits its iPad moment when everything comes together.” That is exactly the point. When you look at history, the invention of the automobile was not disruptive at all. Although looking back, it replaced a complete market (horses) and opened up a new market (personal transportation for the masses). So what happened? Well the T-Ford happened. Early automobiles were cumbersome to operate, expensive and error-prone. With the introduction of the T-Ford, an affordable and reliable automobile came to the market. That made the automobile disruptive. Its invention did not.

The same applies to personal computers. Early personal computers were ugly, expensive and had an extremely limited feature set. Until the birth of the IBM PC, they were niche devices. The concept of a mass-producible and open design made the personal computer big.

Going back to my earlier statement that 3D printing is not disruptive, we are indeed waiting for a few things to come together. I am not a big believer in easy to use personal 3D design software. The act of creation only scales when it is frictionless and effortless. When you look for examples you see that reducing the scope and features are excellent ways to entice people to create. Just take a look at Twitter and Facebook. The act of creation by typing simple messages or uploading pictures is easy. I am sure we will get better and easier to use personal 3D design software, but I am not so sure this will be game changing for 3D printing. There is lots of software which is easy to use but only a limited number of are using it. That is just because it takes time and effort to create something with it. Only when people are genuinely engaged they are prepared to put in time and effort required. This is mostly in the hobby and semi-professional areas. I think for this reason that creating products using 3D software is not going to take off.

The other argument was that 3D printing is still expensive and I agree. But that is more an attribute of where we are today than a reason that 3D printing is not disruptive. Prices will come down over time. When the demand for 3D printing rises economies of scale will make components and materials cheaper. Time solves that problem.

Obviously I am talking in this post about consumer 3D printing. The technology has certainly applications in industrial and professional areas. In those areas it is some cases already disruptive. Hearing aids in the western world are almost exclusively made using 3D printing and a lot of tooth implants as well. The media attention to 3D printing of the last year is helping tremendously to spread the word. A lot of manufacturing engineers I spoke 2-3 years ago were not aware about the abilities of 3D printing or even its existence. That has changed. I expect that much more applications for 3D printing in industrial or B2B products will be developed in the coming years.

3D printing is a powerful technology and a crucial step as a concept in manufacturing. I wrote about that  in an earlier post titled What Gets Me Excited About 3D Printing. It has all the attributes to become a serious disruptive technology and indeed it is a matter of time when everything falls together.