Recently on LinkedIn, a question posted in the 3D printing entrepreneur group asked if the 3D printing bubble is bursting. While I thought the question was jumping the gun, the ensuing discussion had a range of diverse opinions. Here is the comment I posted:
I think what’s being shown is 3D printing gimmick items like dice, paperweights, toys, etc is not a sustainable business model. However, the model that will be sustainable is 3D printing precision components, and the technology to do so is just now becoming readily available. As an example, material and printing processes are reaching the point where parts with internal passages can withstand high pressures, and other components can withstand high temperatures.
The future of 3D printing is in utility and practicality, and less so in chotchkies.
Because comment threads are not the easiest of forums to conduct a detailed analysis, I’d like expand on my comment now.
Like many emerging technologies, I believe 3D printing has suffered from misplaced hype in the media. As the cost of printers decreased, making them attainable for more “civilians”, promises of Star Trek replicators being right around the corner emerged as clickbait headlines. Obviously, those promises were never going to be met.
It was this hype that fueled the industry’s boom, and like a gold rush, more and more people staked a claim. But a unlike a real gold rush, where the first to strike the vein extracts most of the riches, none of the startups seemed to have an idea of where the vein was located.
Precious metals, oil, gemstones… those are all tangible materials with long defined value, and prospectors in those industries know what they’re going after. However, the 3D printing industry is so young, and the resource hasn’t yet been determined. Until the industry comes up with a resource to which people assign real value, companies are going to fold. But that is not evidence of a bubble bursting.
For more evidence, look to the cost models. In a typical bubble such as the housing market, product costs soar as demand becomes hectic and cutthroat. Companies greedily leverage themselves to flood the market with product in order to take advantage of the insanity. Costs increase so steeply that customers cannot sustain their purchasing. The bubble bursts, and companies too heavily invested in inventory go out of business.
But this is not the case with 3D printing. Instead, as with most maturing technologies, costs are dropping. Further, the market isn’t being flooded, because customers are not salivating en masse to buy the products. They’re waiting for a use and product of actual value to emerge.
Let me close by reiterating a point I made in my LinkedIn comment. I think 3D printing will be a very important manufacturing technology in the near future. I’m bullish towards it, if you will. In fact, I think the industry is developing just as it should. Instead of promising our lives will be changed, and instead of predicting doom and gloom, we need to be patient with this technology and let it evolve as it needs to. It will be worth the wait.