This isn’t just premature, it’s absurd. 3-D printing, like VR before it, is one of those technologies that suggest a trend of long and steep adoption driven by rapid advances on the systems we have now. And granted, some of what’s going on at present is pretty cool—whether it’s in rapid prototyping, solid-fuel rockets, bio-assembly or just giant plastic showpieces.
But the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a “mature” technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.
Hype is inevitably followed by some level of backlash, or at least disinterest, and it would be a shame for 3-D printing to head into a too-deep trough of the Gartner hype cycle. There will be plenty of interesting applications for 3-D printing, but I’ll bet the ones that will have the biggest impact will be within traditional factories, where rapid prototyping is already having a huge impact.
I believe this is right. That is why it is interesting to try to look where 3D print might have a unique advantage. Following Bruce Sterlings early insights about this I think one of these possible areas are places on the planet where they don’t have access to factories yet, but is in need of things – many cheap, small but specialized things like e g spare parts for important machines.
Update: Ian Pearson commented on Twitter on this post by noting that 3D print will create a great digital craft industry, which I agree with. And that is a whole interesting area in itself since a whole new craft area will most likely redefine how we relate to design and production. Maybe not for everything but for the things that are perceived to be special and we really like and have emotional relations.