There’s an adage you often hear in marketing that “all publicity is good publicity,” and for the most part this has proved true for the 3D printing industry. In the last few years, not only have we seen the rise of several 3D printing news publications, but the technology has also received glowing press in the mainstream media. On any given day I can watch dozens of new YouTube videos from channels dedicated to 3D printing, and it’s been exciting to see a new generation of Makers sprout up as a result of all this coverage.
But while I think the media attention is helping to inspire tomorrow’s engineers and inventors, I also believe it’s created a distorted perception of the technology, one that’s limiting its true value. When you only focus on the fun and exciting aspects of a product, you ignore the uses that, while being less flashy, provide some of the most practical solutions in cutting edge manufacturing. And because of this blind spot, millions of businesses across the globe are missing out on efficient, affordable options for their manufacturing needs.
The vast majority of 3D printing stories I read fall under three categories, which combined only account for a tiny portion of the total 3D printed items manufactured in a given year. The first is what is commonly called desktop printing and comprises the affordable 3D printers that are purchased by everyday consumers who are just dipping their toes into the technology. Many of the objects you see printed in YouTube videos and at Maker conferences come from desktop printers, and while they offer easy entry into the field, they also represent the first generation of 3D printing technology and therefore are severely limited in what they can produce. Browse the comments of any YouTube video for a desktop-printed product and you’ll see complaints about the quality of the end product. Businesses that would seriously consider employing the use of 3D printers look at these videos and assume the technology won’t meet their needs.
The other two areas that receive disproportionate coverage are the medical and aerospace companies that use 3D printing. To be fair, the technology is particularly well-suited to these industries because they necessitate the creation of high value, highly customized parts in extremely low quantity. For instance, General Electric received a lot of (well-earned) press coverage for its development of a fuel injection nozzle that, instead of requiring the assembly of 20 parts, could be 3D printed as a single part, which will result in substantial fuel savings and better reliability. And while yes, this is a cool use of 3D printing, it’s only one of millions that can be applied across all industries and manufacturing challenges.
Where 3D printing really hits it sweet spot is through rapid prototyping and iteration. As any company that builds products will tell you, before a new product ever reaches the consumer market it must be subjected to dozens of modifications and iterations, and to accomplish this you must be able to quickly and cheaply produce new prototypes. For this type of low-quantity fabrication, traditional subtractive manufacturing can be extremely expensive and impractical. And unlike desktop 3D printers that use first generation technology that’s been around for 20+ years, professional level printers adopt the latest innovations and work with extreme precision.
Producing several iterations of a small part might not be “sexy” to the average news consumer, but this is where some of the most important uses of 3D printing are implemented. It’s also a solution that many companies — especially smaller ones — are in dire need of. As any entrepreneur can tell you, a company that doesn’t constantly innovate is at risk of obsolescence, and yet an inefficient manufacturing industry remains as one of the largest barriers to innovation. It’s only when the media begins to cover these less thrilling aspects of 3D printing that businesses will begin to catch on — and benefit from — the opportunities it offers.