When the White House hypes a technology, it's time to worry. In his State of the Union address in February, US President Barack Obama said 3D printing will "revolutionise the way we make almost everything". He described this as the future of manufacturing. The popular media is increasingly touting 3D printing's potential (there's even talk of it going mainstream). Expectations are so high for digital fabrication technology that disappointment is inevitable. We will surely see Star Trek-like replicators and large-scale 3D manufacturing plants one day. But this won't be until sometime in the next decade. So, let's all calm down, take a page from comedian Larry David and curb our enthusiasm.
I worry that because of the excess hype, 3D printing will soon suffer the same backlash as solar energy and electric cars.
That is the way exponential technologies usually go. Expectations get raised when people first read about a technological breakthrough. They speculate about its potential. Then nothing seems to happen because the growth curve for technologies in their early stages is more or less flat. Disappointment sets in and the blame game begins. Then, like popcorn in a microwave, the kernels start to pop faster. New products come out of nowhere. The technology curve slopes steeply upwards and disappointment turns into amazement. This is what we are seeing today with the internet and our mobile phones. Just recall how disappointed we were when phones were the size of bricks and, a decade ago, when the internet bubble burst.
We are only in the early stages of 3D printing. The curve is flat for the foreseeable future.
Ofer Shochet, executive vice president of products at Israel-based Stratasys, which makes 3D printers, said he likens the progression of 3D technologies to Moore's Law. According to his computations, the resolution and speed of inkjet-based 3D systems double every four years. He says "this opens the door for unbelievable speed and quality."
This sounds great until you consider that it currently takes several hours to print an object the size of a bread box – and the time and cost of printing generally increases exponentially with size. So something of double the size could take eight times as long and cost eight times as much. Want something three times as big? That could take 27 times as long and cost 27 times more. It could take several days to print something the size of a small table.
Autodesk president and chief executive Carl Bass highlights another problem: the cost of raw materials. He says 3D manufacturers have adopted the same business model as inkjet printers; they charge little for hardware but make their profits on cartridges. Materials for 3D printing sell for up to 100 times the cost of the commodity. Bass says better business models and more breakthroughs are needed in 3D printing technologies before they become ripe for explosive growth.
The good news is that such technology advances may be on the horizon. What will accelerate these is the expiration of patents that have been inhibiting competition and innovation. One technology in particular, called "selective laser sintering", produces very high-quality 3D objects. But patent holders have been able to maintain a near monopoly and charge tens of thousands of dollars for these printers. Fortunately, key patents on laser sintering expire in February 2014. This will cause a flood of competitors to enter the marketplace. We will surely see better and lower-cost products just as we did a few years ago when the patents expired on another 3D technology called "fused deposition modelling".
Shochet says a revolution is already happening, but at a different place than most people think. He says "while consumers can't snap their fingers and have an object instantly printed, the people who are impacted by 3D printing today say that it is game-changing for their businesses and even life-changing for them personally." He sees a new level of creativity being instilled in the next generations of designers and engineers who are exposed to 3D printing from the very beginning of their careers.
We are about to see a renaissance in design. Imagine what Leonardo da Vinci could have designed if he had an iPad and 3D printer. That is what millions of creative people all over the world will soon be able to do.
So let's be excited, but adjust our expectations.
In the foreseeable future, 3D printers will allow us to visualise almost anything we can imagine. Manufacturers will use these to print parts for planes and personalised medical devices. Consumers will print customised toys for their children and jewellery for themselves. We won't – for a long time – see the large-scale manufacturing revolution that Obama is hoping for. That revolution will, however, happen after we become bitterly disappointed.
Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of innovation and research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Centre for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Duke and Emory Universities as well as past appointments at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley.