The bad news is that this attention could lead to disappointment (again) for this industry. Twenty-five years ago, this technology received lots of media attention; both mainstream media and business-to-business groups touted the uniqueness and innovation of this technology. Frequent promises of imminent game changing developments were made.
But they weren’t kept.
Now we are experiencing round 2. It’s great that so many in the mainstream news media have (re)discovered the cool factor of additive manufacturing’s 3D printers. The “killer app” for those enamored of the Bits for Bytes, MakerBot, and RapMan systems is the ability to just make things. Artists in particular love this technology. Visions of Star Trek replicators abound. But no 3D printer is a replicator yet. For one thing, none of them replicate food, as in “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” so that app is out. Once this community realizes that these systems are not replicators, will their enthusiasm cool?
I recently spoke with Todd Grimm, who has covered this industry pretty much since its inception and who monitors and analyzes this market regularly, about this dilemma. While this “hobbyist” development is interesting, he questions whether it will lead to system sales.
For the professional community, work is underway to help the AM market brand itself better. But, as Grimm mentioned, we still need the killer app for the professional user. The on-demand nature of making an object, as well as the small batch at a reasonable price capability don’t seem to fill the killer app need.
Grimm thinks the killer app for professionals will be the convenience that AM technology delivers. Think back to the early PC industry. It wasn’t until applications like spreadsheets and word processing came that deliver convenience to users that PCs became the ubiquitous devices they are today. They have removed so many tasks from our everyday life, that we can’t image doing without them.
For engineers, the convenience AM could deliver is improved personal efficiency and productivity. You can try out design ideas, in the privacy of your office (or cube), without involving other departments until you are ready.
But we face a serious problem of inertia—as individuals, our behavior patterns indicate we don’t change unless our backs are against the wall. So even with fabulous new technology, unless we have to, we won’t do something differently.
AM is fabulous technology without an apparent killer app. What do you think that application could be?