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The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Posted September 21, 2016 3:14 PM by HUSH

Did you get the memo? Perhaps you read the obit. 3D printing is dead. Over. Done with. Kaputski.

This past summer there were many articles criticizing 3D printing’s struggle to stay relevant. Stratasys and 3D Systems, two of the leading 3D printing companies, saw their stock surge 333% and 800% between 2011 and 2013, respectively. But since 2014, the two companies have seen their combined stock cash valuations plummet from $14 billion to less than $3 billion. The former has instituted layoffs and shifted manufacturing to China, while the latter has stopped selling its consumer-oriented printer. Some believe it would be in the best interests if Stratasys and 3D Systems were to merge, to consolidate technologies, efforts and products. Meanwhile, the industry becomes more muddled each year with startups that feel like they have a unique offering to additive manufacturing (AM).

Many of the critics also point out that 3D printing hasn’t become a ubiquitous as predicted; 3D printers aren’t easy to use; and instances of makers fabricating actually useful components are rare.

So because 3D printing lacks the cohesive focus and applications of more mature technologies, that makes it dead?

Almost definitely not. Last week, General Electric purchased separate AM companies, Arcam AB and SLM Solutions Group AG, for a total of $1.4 billion. When the deals are complete, GE will move from one of the world’s largest metal printing customers, to one of the world’s premier 3D printing suppliers. GE believes it can milk $1 billion in AM revenue from these two companies by 2020 (a 600% increase), while also saving between $5 and $10 billion on its own AM expenditures. And although the industry is amidst significant upheaval and uncertainty, it still grew by 26% on 2015.

So the so-called death of 3D printing can be attributed to two likely causes. The first, is (sigh) media hype. As quickly as journalists and news sources were ready to make 3D printing the king of manufacturing in 2013, they are just as ready to execute it today.

Gartner is a technology research and advisory company that details technological innovations, but also the societal or cultural changes around them. In 2015 they released the graph on right, depicting the 3D Printing Hype Cycle. Right now, we’re on our way out of the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ and onto ‘Plateau of Productivity.’ Right now 3D printing is immensely popular in the medical field for creating custom hearing aids, knee replacements, insoles, artificial limbs and so much more.

As hype grew around 3D printers just three years ago, so did imaginations and investments. Yet 3D printing innovations happened less quickly than what was expected, so hype died, and the narrative turned from all the possibilities of AM to all the shortcomings of AM.

The second cause is there is still not much consumer appetite. A few years ago it seemed that 3D printing was so disruptive to traditional supply chains and manufacturing that almost everyone would own one, much the way 2D printers proliferated. Instead, DIY 3D printer owners are mostly just fabricating dust-collecting knick-knacks. There hasn’t been that ‘killer app’ moment yet, where a 3D printer produces something so clever or original, that people are compelled to buy one. On top of that, producing an original design or replicating a broken one has a considerable knowledge barrier—your average Wal-Mart shopper likely doesn’t know how to set up a 3D printer, let alone begin scanning parts or fixing a broken part in CAD.

Considering the difficult business that is consumer-oriented 3D printers, there aren’t many companies willing to invest in new consumer-level products—not when even $200 3D printers can have trouble selling. This is why companies such as GE still see a light at the end of the AM tunnel, but to the general public it seems like nothing but a dead end.

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#1

Re: The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

09/21/2016 4:25 PM

The price of 3D printer come down in costs so much, it seems they are available to everyone, which they are. Purchase on the basis of "that's cool, I gotta get one" and do. But with the exception of models pulled off the web, they have nothing to develop.

I bought one last December as did a co-worker. We talk how much we use it, and it was very simular. It will sit idle for 1-2 months and then run 24-7 for the next couple of weeks on a development project.

If some people have the imagination but just don't have the design capability or technical skill to develop projects. It sits.

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#5
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Re: The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

09/27/2016 10:15 AM

Most of my tools sit idle for months at a time until I need them and they see heavy use for a short while. I think most could say the same thing of a lathe or milling machine or saw for that matter. I see a 3D printer like any other tool, when you need it, it can be very useful to have the right tool for the job.

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#6
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Re: The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

09/27/2016 10:22 AM

I believe that's pretty common. People think that its a business such as having a 3D printer. Not anymore, its only a tool. For me, a hobby.

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#2

Re: The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

09/21/2016 6:05 PM

If I remember correctly the invention of the laser was much along the same lines, "cool but what use is it?"

Perhaps a real breakthrough will occur once more user friendly software and better plastics are developed.

Free hand 3D modelling using VR perhaps? Conductive plastics for 3D printed circuits or even energy harnessing devices or batteries.

These are all under development but yet to hit mass production.

Add "3D printing is dead!" to such other hopelessly wrong statements on the usefulness of the telephone, computer memory, etc over the years.

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#3

Re: The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

09/21/2016 7:04 PM

When you can 3D print a 3D printer, it will take off like gangbusters!

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#4
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Re: The Death of 3D Printing Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

09/22/2016 11:26 AM

Reprap was founded in around 2005 on just that principle and for the most part many of them can replicate themselves. One does still need to buy motors electronics and threaded rod but all the specialized parts can be printed. I believe the original idea was for everyone who built one they were supposed to print the parts for a new one and sell them at cost.

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