Back in May 2013 I published my first book on ‘3D printing’, otherwise known as ‘additive manufacturing.’
At the time we were at the top of a hype cycle, with the popular press regularly proclaiming that many people would soon own ‘personal fabricators’ able to manufacture almost any product on-demand, and most probably on their kitchen table.
Today the press has abandoned ship, apparently surprised that the ‘Next Industrial Revolution’ has not yet taken hold. 3D printing has subsequently been dismissed in many quarters, even though its technologies have continued to develop at an accelerating pace. Indeed, already there are companies that are using 3D printers not just to make rapid prototypes, but to manufacture molds, other tooling, and even final metal or plastic components. Such parts include jet engine fuel nozzles, dental appliances, and the cleats in some high-end trainers.
So are we on the brink of a 3D Printing Revolution? Well, based on an appraisal of current technologies, most certainly not. But based on any reasonable analysis of the current speed of 3D printing innovation, most probably so. We really must not fall into the trap of judging the likelihood of the 3D Printing Revolution based on a cursory dismissal of those low-cost, low-capability personal 3D printers still paraded by an ill-informed media as the best that additive manufacturing has to offer.
Already 3D printing technologies are starting to be integrated into traditional machine tools. New processes and new 3D printing materials also continue to be developed, while interfaces with other areas of digital manufacturing offer significant opportunities for innovation and workflow improvements. Very large traditional manufacturers - including Toshiba, HP, Canon, Ricoh, Groupe Gorgé and Kinpo - are also entering or are about to enter the 3D printing marketplace. The time is therefore right for all businesses with vision to get to grips with those new forms of low-run, low-waste, customized and otherwise-impossible manufacturing that 3D printing will increasingly facilitate.
According to a July 2016 report from Ernst & Young, 37 per cent of German companies are already using 3D printing in some form, with a further 12 per cent planning to adopt it in the near future. As I prepare for the publication of my third 3D printing book in November 2016, I am therefore in no doubt that the naysayers are wrong. The 3D Printing Revolution will not arrive as rapidly as the Internet Revolution. But arrive it will. And all manufacturers should therefore be appraising the opportunities and challenges it will present.
Christopher Barnatt is a professional futurist who spent 25 years lecturing in Nottingham University Business School.