There are some wild claims being made about what kind of advancements we might see in 3D-printing, particularly extrusion-based desktop printing during the next couple of years. I’d like to take a moment to examine why I think the predictions, while they might have a hint of truth in what will be accomplished, are not accurate in terms of the timeline.
Before I address the level of innovation and progress, we also have to define what constitutes innovation, and there are some slightly varying interpretations floating around. One recent view makes a very sharp distinction between innovation and invention. Invention being the point where the seed of an idea is brought into reality through experimentation or prototyping, and innovation being defined by the impact it has on us. A big example would be the iPhone, which was clearly innovative in many ways. There was not a lot of invention though, since nearly all of the components (touch-screen, mobile internet, etc.) were already available, and it was just very well designed, built and marketed, leading to incredible impact that most people agree was a great example of innovation. The definition in some peoples eyes then becomes purely defined by impact, which I don’t entirely agree with. I think the innovation was in the integration of the technologies in a conscious and harmonious way, which to me is just an example of Design that simply goes outside of the scope of what most people think of design – “how stuff looks”. The iPhone was innovative because the technologies were mature enough to perform predictably, which made it possible to create a design without glaring flaws, which is what was needed for adoption and impact. So by the ‘impact’ definition, if one of the technologies you choose is not mature enough, or some aspect of culture made it hard for people to accept your creation, or even if some random thing happened like an earthquake that prevented your product from being successful, then that means you did not contribute to innovation. It also would mean, for example, that if a factory that you contracted to produce your device simply stole it, they would get credit for the innovation. I don’t think that definition holds water. In that case both the inventor and the integrator worked together, consciously or not, to produce the innovation.
My definition of innovation is a combination of Invention and what I’m calling Integration, where the invention is gracefully married to the whole ecosystem that allows it to exist and flourish. This is essentially turning something rare and delicate into a robust commodity so that people can conceive of it, access it, and modify it, and so business people can model it, predict changes in its use, and so will be willing to help it succeed. I have put more than enough into this aspect of what I wanted to say, so for further information I suggest reading the works of Simon Wardley. Those ideas spin off into fairly dense economic theory which is not my bag, but you can get a nice intro to his ideas about cycles of innovation in this appropriately themed blog post: Spoiler alert: 3D Printing.
Is 3D-printing innovating at light speed? It may seem that way, but I think it’s been exaggerated. Let’s look at extrusion printers and quickly review their development. Scott Crump invented the whole thing in 1989. CNC machines were available, but had been limited to removing material instead of adding it. His company, Stratasys, came up with the extruder bit, and then a whole wave of other things that flowed from that, like the sparse fill, support, heated build chamber, etc. that were needed to make the output accurate and repeatable. His patent expired and along came Rep-Rap, which beget MakerBot and everyone else. Making printers a commodity is a part of “3D-printing innovation”, but in my mind we should not separate it from the invention stage because it is entirely dependent on it. Without invention there will be no innovation. How many really strong examples of invention are there in open-source extrusion printers? Ones on the level of in-fill, support, and others like Statasys added? There were a few things with tool paths (mostly from Joris at Ultimaker), and the Thing-o-matic conveyor belt was a seriously awesome idea, but that’s about it. There are thousands of people working on them day and night, and all I see is people making them bigger or smaller or cheaper, or sticking weird materials in them. That fulfills the “adoption and diffusion” portion of innovation, but adding another extruder or changing layer thickness or whatever is not going to bring us to 3D-printed cell phones as people are predicting. There has been virtually nothing done in 20 years! Why, because people outside of industry suddenly care, will the actual technology suddenly leap forward? I’m not saying it won’t accelerate rapidly, but I want to see some examples.
I think it is more likely that new innovations will come as a result of inventions which are not 3D-printers, but create an ecosystem where the printer becomes more useful. Obvious technologies to integrate would be 3D scanning and digital object transmission. Both of those things are already here, but it is the integration of them that is innovative and has value. Both of those things need robust software (let’s call it an “information ecosystem to live in”) to reach the level of maturity needed for integration. 3D scanning software must align, clean-up, analyze and transform the data to make use of it. A digital object distribution system needs to take all kinds of situations into account and allow for economic activity to spring from it’s use. People in industry know these things, which is why we have Geomagic and Shapeways. Is it possible that one might come up with a fantastically brilliant way of doing things better while they’re tinkering with their printer? Sure! Kids who are now using one at 10 years old are going to have the perfect mindset to do exactly that when they’re 20. But it will be because they connect the existing ideas with something else, where no one saw the connection before and didn’t see how the new relationship would be beneficial. When it comes to the invention portion though, a lot of that requires some hard-core science and observation of things that haven’t already been observed for hundreds of thousands of man-hours by really smart and creative people who were working to come up with a solution because their livelihood depended on it.
If it is true that we will see the massive innovation that has been predicted within the next few years, we first need to see the inventions that completely up-end the way we think of 3D-printing. A completely new deposition method. A new way of supporting the build material that doesn’t have to be cleaned off and doesn’t harm the surface finish. We could see nearly microscopic building blocks (voxels) that link together and have different properties produced in mass quantities as proposed by Hod Lipson at Cornell. Build material might be supported by electromagnetic fields, a stream of particles, tiny robotic arms that either directly support or place temporary fixtures, or any other exotic method that will seem like science fiction right up to the moment when it becomes science fact. Since we have not seen these advancement move past the “what if?” stage, we are going to have to be patient, but more importantly, work extremely hard, to make it happen.
I understand why the change seems to be happening at a frenetic pace. There has been an explosion of media coverage, and those who have been quietly working on their own advances have suddenly been given a good reason to make a lot of noise about what they are doing and the potential it has. By the time their message filters through media, their perhaps optimistic claims can be blown wildly out of proportion. If you just heard about 3D-printing last week, and this week you read a story about printing of living cells, it is easy to get the impression that the progress had been made in one week, when in actuality the printer had been around for 20 years and the doctor had been working on that application for 10 years. Boiled down into newspaper article, then hastily reviewed in a short blog post, then summarized in a tweet, there really isn’t much reference point to give the reader. It’s just disembodied “Wow” that drifts completely out of context, and certainly does not contribute to actual advancement except where, by chance, excited investors throw so much money at it that some of it lands it the right spot.