As an engineer, my skepticism has been elevated frequently with the recent marketing proproganda and media reporting on how great 3D printing technology is and how it will revolutionize everything. (Now, before various enthusiasts start to throw rocks at me, I really do like this technology—it has tremendous potential, if we don’t kill it with overly enthusiastic claims before it matures.)
So I was delighted to listen to a number of informed, intelligent presentations made at the recent TCT Show in Birmingham, England, about the reality of this technology. Too many marketing and media articles focus on how 3D printing will be a “game changer.” First, when they are making these claims, they are primarily talking about the low-end, lower cost 3D printing systems—the ones targeted at home use.
Just what is the game, and how will 3D printing change it? The game now appears to be the process of making things. Now, anyone can print out a figure of him or herself as a Start Trek, or other, character. Or, anyone can print out a custom case for their smart phone. Now, anyone can become a manufacturer and make a viable living out of this. Well, maybe. As those who have been involved in manufacturing for years know, it’s not always that simple.
The game change concept also appears to include the idea of democratization.
As I understand it, democratization means to bring “high” technology down to the level of non-experts. In general, it’s not a bad idea; for example, it expands markets, bringing new users into the “club.” (Brace yourselves, engineers, you are part of an exclusive club).
But there is (or should be) a caveat—some technology should not be put into the hands of those with limited expertise. Yes, you can 3D print parts of a gun, and then watch them explode at the first firing. Yes, you can print a replacement part for your car engine. However, I will not ride in that car with you.
Todd Grimm (TA Grimm & Associates), Greg Morris (GE Aviation), Dominik Reitzel (RPD Group), Scott Crump (Stratasys), David Burns (ExOne), Joris Peels (VoxelFab), Jeremy Pullin (Renishaw PLC), Phil Reeves (Econolyst), and Richard Horne (aka @RichRap3D) were just some of the industry experienced presenters who tackled the subject of enthusiasm being used to sell 3D printing technology. And they did so brilliantly.
Even Avi Reichental of 3D Systems, and perhaps the person most associated with the idea of democratization, mentioned the issue of “unintended results” from 3D printing. As Avi noted, this technology eliminates the need to be a craftsman in order to make things.
And that is a key issue. You don’t necessarily have to go to school and learn physics to create an object, print it, and maybe put it in your car to temporarily fix something. However, 3D printing does not protect (or prevent) you from learning physics the hard way.
Is it a good idea to let anyone download a design from one of the 3D printing consumer-focused sites, and do what they want with it? Are there designs that should never see the light of day because they were not developed by people with knowledge about how to create a product? If we think this is a good idea, I think we will have to create a special category of the Darwin Awards for some 3D printed projects.
The opposite side of the argument is how can we make 3D printing technology simpler for others to join “the exclusive club of designing and developing.” I take issue with this statement. I didn’t know engineering was an “exclusive club.” I thought anyone could join. It’s easy—go to school, take lots of science and math classes, go to college and major in engineering. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is busy trying to involve our youth in these fields.
As a number of presenters mentioned, just because you have a tool (like a 3D printer), it doesn’t mean you can make anything (like a functional organ or nutritional food). Some serious thinking and design skill and experience are needed. It’s great that grade level and high-school level classes are introducing kids to basic CAD programs and 3D printers, but are they also exposing the kids to basic engineering and physics knowledge so that objects won’t fall apart in application?
Even Richard Horne, an electronics engineer known for his RepRap involvement, said that you still need an engineering mind to make the most of a 3D printer, even one like the RepRap.
Instead of lowering the technology to include more users, why not raise the skills and understanding of potential users so that they can make the best use of the “game changing” nature of this technology?