I work at the crossroads of design, engineering and research, and have used 3D printing (formerly known as rapid prototyping, which is what it really is) for the better part of two decades. I read the Wohlers Report and attended the Euromold. Therefore, I am neither "against" 3D printing in general nor "against" equipment vendors in particular. However, what most uninformed futurologists so conveniently ignore is that the intersection of creation, production and consumption is far more complex than it is made out to be, and that it is by no means clear where and by whom substantial and sustainable value will be created.
This article aims to be the first of a three-part mini-series debunking the most common mythologies surrounding additive fabrication. The articles will address: Consumers, Industries, Technologies.
1st myth: 3DP enables consumers to make their own products
Consumers always have been, and will be highly irrational. They demand high quality at low cost. They want durable goods, only to discard them faster than ever. They desire a sustainable lifestyle, yet purchase growing quantities of goods. They tinker with DIY, but soon let their tools gather dust at the attic. They claim creativity, yet shop for brands.
What would it take for consumers to productively use 3D printing? Let us examine a plastic tea kettle charging plate (a part replacement) and a plastic baby toy (a birthday gift) to see what must be considered if consumers would make their own products:
- Data: Consumers need a 3D representation of their part (or assembly) in polygonal STL format, describing the object to be fabricated. They need to disassemble the broken tea kettle charging plate, bring out their vernier calliper and carefully measure up the parts and their fitting. They then need to calculate the forces and tolerances for snap-fits and screw-bosses that will safely hold the replacement part in place. They also need to integrate UL (EN) requirements concerning electricity, as well as to consider thermal expansion and failure that might occur during the product's lifetime. After all, consumers want their home insurance to cover fully in case malfunction occurs, don't they? And, even more so regarding parts they produce for friends, neighbours or for sale - product liability 101. Regarding the 3D data for the baby toy, things are somewhat simpler. All consumers would have to do is to imagine, sketch out and then design the toy, maybe engineering just a couple of simple interconnections or moving parts with basic friction fits, so the tolerance considerations can be much looser. Of course, because consumers care for children, product safety regulations for under three-year olds would be studied and implemented while developing the final design. After all, the baby birthday gift shall be a fountain of joy for months to come, right?
- Software: With everything so dutifully considered, consumers would sit down with their tablet PC running their favourite 3D design and engineering software, and commence modelling NURBS surfaces or B-rep solids of all parts and output them as STL files. Consumers, creative as they are, and liking a challenge as they do, can easily find the necessary software and courseware to learn to then swiftly model all kinds of products, can't they?
- Downloads: Some clever consumers may rather want to take a shortcut and download the data for their kettle charging plate - only to discover that nobody "on the internet" ever bothered to 3D-model the right one for their Russell Hobbs 13552 tea kettle purchased only three years ago; the UK-only model with the flat induction charging pin. Well, that's too bad. Also, the baby toy upload section at Shapeways looks somewhat dire, small trinkets and knicknacks abound - no beautiful baby toys in store that could not be purchased much easier in perfect quality on- or off-line.
- Production: With all parts of the kettle charger plate or the baby toy (it's a simplified figurine vaguely resembling, well, Buzz Lightyear - hopefully, Disney won't notice) eventually successfully 3D-modelled and ready as STL files, consumers then go about selecting the right types and grades of plastic, surface finishes and colours, before uploading their data to their 3D printer. After all, the replacement or gift shall perform as expected for a long time to come; sturdy, easy to clean and maintain. Having realised that their BakerMot 3D printer has only red, blue, grey and black plastic filament available - out goes Buzz Lightyear's transparent helmet - consumers hit "print" and… wait. And then wait some more. Once all parts are finished at last, layer by layer, consumers set about spraying their rough parts with acetone or a similar highly flammable solvent, or take to rising grades of sand paper and polishing compound to achieve an acceptable surface finish - which takes quite a few hours of work.
- Alternative: Having probably given up on "insourcing" production to themselves, maybe not so versed in designing, engineering, 3D modelling, model-making and finishing techniques after all, or, what is more likely, just not bothered - and thus also not bothered with purchasing a "3D printer" and consumables from a vendor - consumers instead turn to 3DP service bureaux, upload their files and, after accepting a surprisingly hefty quote, discover that one-week delivery time, including shipping, may be the current time frame, because the local "Kewl's 3DP Shoppe" is occupied with fabricating 18 drone rotors, all three of their 3DP machines' build-volumes occupied 24 hours for several days. Production deadlines… who likes them? Another week without tea? Missing the nephew's birthday party? At least, Hershey's will, one fine day in the future, print chocolates - alas, those pesky almonds and glacé cherries just won't fit through the printer's nozzle. But, consumers can't have it all, can they?
- Likely outcome: The consumer orders an original tea kettle charging plate online, and buys a baby toy figurine at the local high street: Made from different materials like heat-resistant plastic and wood. Perfectly finished. On the way home from work. Within minutes. For little money.
(No-name 3D printers waiting for consumers... click to enlarge)
It looks like Mrs. Con and Mr. Sumer will do no 3D printing this weekend. But maybe next month. Or whenever there is time. In "the future". Is the home factory for Alvin Toffler's highly creative and technologically knowledgeable "prosumer" (designer-engineer-consumer) just around the corner, propelling machine and consumable sales - and profits - from vendors such as 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) or Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and ExOne (NASDAQ:XONE) to unseen heights? I severely doubt it. And so do many others.
A last word: What about "the future", if it ever comes? In "the future" anything could happen at any time, in any place. What about "the potential"? The Neanderthal also had potential, before he became extinct. Vague notions and confirmation bias, however, hardly make for a sound investment thesis.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.