3D printing: Hype or truly transformative?

3D printing, or more appropriately, ‘additive manufacturing’ creates solid objects from digital files, one layer at a time. This allows innovative designs, complex shapes, and a variety of materials that are otherwise impossible or impractical using conventional manufacturing techniques. Each build is essentially a custom build making it suitable for one-off or low volume manufacturing. At the same time, it is also 3D printing’s major weakness – the lack of economies of scale.

What does the future hold?

Even unanimous predictions of success haven’t always resulted in a technology actually being successful. When the Segway was launched, it was hailed as it “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” The original Iridium satellite network aimed to create an orbiting phone network that could beam calls to every inch of the Earth’s surface. The founding company filed for bankruptcy nine months after the service launched. So, what is the future of 3D printing? Will it live up to its promise of being “the future of manufacturing” or go the way of the Segway and die away, restricted to a handful of hobbyists? The signs so far have been positive but will 3D printing be truly transformative?

A framework for predicting technology-led transformation

In the absence of a crystal ball and a well accepted predictive model, a good starting point is to look back at technologies (in the broadest sense of the term) that succeeded. What led to their success? What ingredients did they have that were absent in the failed cases? There is no doubt that two recent successes have been the Internet and iDevices (iPod, iPhone, and iPad). The former is an open platform while the latter is tightly controlled by Apple. This indicates that the openness or closed nature of the technology is unlikely to be a good indicator of success. It seems that one critical ingredient is for the technology to be a platform to be truly transformative. Success comes from enabling the development of an ecosystem based on the technology, rather than a narrow impact of the particular technology itself. An ecosystem implies diversity of suppliers, views, business models, and ‘skin in the game’.

How to create a new business ecosystem

Predicting success then shifts to considering the creation of a new business ecosystem in the future, a more difficult and complex question than looking at 3D printing alone. Again, in the absence of a crystal ball and a well accepted predictive model, I’d like to put forward a potential approach. Jonathan Zittrain published The Future of the Internet- And How to Stop It in 2008. He put forward the view that ‘generativity’ is an essential character for the development of open platforms. The term was defined as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” Usefully, the book provides five principal factors that indicate if an ecosystem created by a new technology is generative. A critical point is that it needs to meet all five factors, rather than only some of them, in a mutually reinforcing fashion. Looking at the extent to which 3D printing meets the five factors, individually and as a whole, then becomes a way to predict whether it will lead to a new business ecosystem and thereby become truly transformative. Leverage: the more a system can do, the more capable it is of producing change. Adaptability: how easily the system can be built on or modified to broaden its range of uses. Ease of mastery: how easy it is for broad audiences to understand how to adopt and adapt it. Accessibility: The easier it is to obtain access to a technology, along with the tools and information necessary to achieve mastery of it, the more generative it is. Transferability: how easily changes in the technology can be conveyed to others. 3D printing ticks each of these five factors.

Conclusion

The framework and analysis developed here is neither robust nor a guaranteed predictor of 3D printing’s future success. Nevertheless, it provides a reasonable basis to predict that 3D printing will in fact become truly transformative by being a generative technology leading to the development of a new business ecosystem. In the absence of a crystal ball, that’s about as good as it gets. Already 90% of all in-the-ear hearing aids are made via 3D printing to optimise and individualise acoustic qualities. And 3D printing is just beginning to be seriously deployed.