Hype about 3D printing & dreams of American reindustrialization. Hope is more fun than reform.

Summary:  Judging from the hype, 3-D printing is the next big thing in the ongoing industrial revolution (especially since the biotech revolution has stalled) — and the US has a great lead.  We’re #1! No need for difficult structural reforms! Too bad the story is probably exaggerated, perhaps delusional. Hope is seldom a substitute for reform. Also, see the links at the end to useful reports and articles about 3D printing!

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Note the location of 3D printing at the very top of the curve:

Gartner’s 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report. Note 3-D Printing on top. Click to enlarge.

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For a good summary of this promising new technology see this excerpt from “The Hype For 3D Printing Has Really Gone Way Over The Top“, Doug Smock (Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Modern Mold & Tooling), 18 January 2013:

I love 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) and have covered it since Chuck Hull at 3D Systems invented this technology in 1986 {stereolithography; first printer in 1992}. In 3D printing three-dimensional objects are made in tiny incremental layers from a digital model. Sometimes machines like printers are used to deposit the layers; other approaches use lasers to fuse powder metals or plastics.

I get tired of what seems to be hype surrounding the process. It seems every 2 weeks there is a “Wow” story in the Economist or the New York Times. They have headlines like this one posted today: “3D printing may shape a new manufacturing revolution“.

It seems like I’ve seen similar headlines for at least 20 years. While there have been many impressive developments, I have not seen a “manufacturing revolution”. … it’s expensive. And for mass production, it’s way too slow a process to be realistic.

… 3D printing works when there are many design changes and volumes are low. It’s the greatest invention ever for prototyping. It works great for dental and some medical applications. It works great for making custom designed, one-off toys and monsters. It works great for custom cranial implants, although many are still machined from stock shapes. Works great for architectural models.

… it will remain a specialized technology for at least the foreseeable future.

About that US lead in 3D printing

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There are several dozen companies active in the 3D printing market, including even foreigners. Four in Germany, plus others in Britain, Sweden, France, Austria, Israel, Korea, and China (whose government has identified its importance).

Nor is it clear that any nation has a competitive advantage, or that there are substantial barriers to entry into this field.

Technology Euphoria

This euphoria about a new technology is an old story. They usually exaggerate the odds of success. Sometimes it proves correct; more often the technology does not prove practical for widespread use (failed technology), works but does not meet expectations, or develops far more slowly than expected (premature technology). Truly revolutionary technologies are rare.

As a reality check, what are the largest tech disappointments over the last century or two? Some examples (of varying sizes):

3D-printed dress for Dita Von Teeseby Michael Schmidt & Francis Bitonti
3D-printed dress for Dita Von Teese
by Michael Schmidt & Francis Bitonti
  • cloning
  • cryogenics
  • wireless power transmission
  • driverless cars (from 1930s)
  • teleconferencing/telecommuting (forecast in 1893)
  • artificial intelligence (eg, vs forecasts from 1987)
  • energy: civilian nuclear power, fusion, fuel cells
  • genetic engineering (eg, from Human Genome Project)
  • transportation: mag-lev trains, civilian supersonic transports, VTOL, STOL, jetpacks, small flight platforms
  • superconductivity (1962 first commercial use; 1986 discovery of first high-temperature superconductor)
  • development of space (planetary exploration & manned spacecraft probably not worth the cost)

This does not include technology that didn’t catch on because similar alternative worked (eg, airships and steam cars) or were not widely expected to work (eg, nuclear-powered aircraft).

For more about this see:

For More Information about 3-D printing

(a)  Major sources of information

This website is good place to start: 3D Printing.  Esp note “The Economic Impacts of 3D Printing“.  Excellent graphics!

Articles from The Economist:

2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies Report“, Gartner, 16 August 2012 — Identifies Tipping Point Technologies That Will Unlock Long-Awaited Technology Scenarios

What do a Comb, an Egg Cup, and a Justin Bieber Vibrator Have in Common?“, Citron Research, 14 February 2013 — “Additive manufacturing has been around for 30 years . The only thing that is new in recent year s is availability of consumer-priced 3D printers along with a frenzy of thoughtless and shallow media attention. We are not claiming that direct digital manufacturing has no place in the industrial landscape, and that it won’t grow incrementally as new technology enable s new applications. We simply observe that appearances have become completely unhinged from reality …”

(b)  Other articles about 3-D printing

  1. Why 3-D Printing Will Go the Way of Virtual Reality“, Christopher Mims, MIT Technology Review, 25 January 2012 — “Extruding, printing, and sintering are not the same as manufacturing”
  2. 3D printing at the Techonomy conference: The hype, the hopes, the hurdles“, CNET, 15 November 2012
  3. Chris Anderson: Why I left Wired; 3D Printing Will Be Bigger Than The Web“, ZDNet, 16 November 2012 — “”Chris Anderson, former Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine, believes home-based ‘replicators’ will transform our future.”
  4. Fabricated future: The sceptic’s guide to 3D printing“, New Scientist, 19 December 2012 — Excellent but gated.
  5. The Hype For 3D Printing Has Really Gone Way Over The Top“,  (Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Modern Mold & Tooling), 18 January 2013
  6. The 3D printing reality distortion field“, Joris Peels (industry consultant), TCT Magazine, 26 February 2013 — “This field will bring about many unrealistic expectations, much unfounded optimism and is causing people to misunderstand the industry its future and its capabilities.”
  7. 3D Printing Doesn’t Live Up To The Hype Yet“, Mitch Free, Forbes, 12 March 2013
  8. A Pirate Bay for 3D launched“, BBC, 12 March 2013 — DefCAD, a file-sharing website providing blueprints to 3D-printed illicit items including weapons, drugs and medical equipment
  9. The 4 Worst Things People Are Making with 3D Printers“, Cracked.com, 18 March 2013

Other posts about America’s economic growth

  1. Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future?, 28 August 2012
  2. Is America on the road to zero growth?, 29 November 2012
  3. Why America’s growth is slowing, and a solution, 18 January 2013

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