3D Printing Is Changing the Way We Think
Surveys indicate that more than 30 percent of the top 300 largest global brands are now using or evaluating 3D printing (often with printing technology in-house) whether for prototyping and other innovation projects or in actual production of what they sell. Over 200 universities and colleges already offer 3D coursework in their curricula – covering aspects of not only 3D printing but also 3D scanning and design. To my mind, there is no question that 3D has reached, as Dartmouth’s Richard D’Aveni argues in a recent HBR article, a tipping point.
Even Terry Wohlers, founder of Wohlers Associates and publisher of the most cited research tracking the rise of 3D technology, is impressed. In a recent email exchange he told me: “We’re seeing a level of investment in 3D printing that we have not seen in the past — not even close.” As much of a champion as Wohlers is for the technology, he marvels at how the pace is picking up: “It’s really very interesting, and to some extent, mind-boggling, especially given that 3D printing has been around for more than 25 years.”
But perhaps there is a simple reason that the tipping point is arriving now. I think it’s connected to the recent arrival of very affordable desktop 3D printers – which means it isn’t only big corporate R&D departments that are coming down the 3D learning curve.
I saw this last year, when I spent eight-plus months traveling to hotbeds of 3D innovation across America in a specially outfitted RV. Our tour took us to government agencies like NASA and big corporations like GE, but we also hung out in makerspaces, hackerspaces, and other places where creators were using less elaborate versions of the tools.
I met, for example, Jeff Tiedeken, founder of the uniquely named business Monkey Likes Shiny. He is a skilled metal fabricator, but that label doesn’t do him justice. Really, he is a renaissance man creating models that quickly move from digital to physical, in the form of metal and also many other materials. He uses 3D printers – and also CNC routers, metal bending machines, waterjet cutters, and other tools. That day, for example, he was happy to show me the gravity bikes he designed for maximum speed on downhill coasts. Wild cycles, for sure. He regularly volunteers at the San Francisco Exploratorium because he wants to help young people learn to make things with their own hands – especially things designed from scratch. When I contacted him last, he was in Hawaii helping community-college students machine up parts for a satellite.
People like Jeff and students all around the world are embracing newly accessible technology to make the things they couldn’t make as easily before. For evidence, just look at the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Over the past couple of years, entrepreneurs have used it to launch no fewer than 300 3D-printer-related campaigns – and many of them have funded at levels in the millions of dollars. This must be what it felt like in the earliest days of the automobile when, depending on which source you check, something like 1,800-2,800 auto “startups” were launched in the span of a few decades.
And in fact, it’s also like the most recent days of the automobile era. The “Uber of 3D printers” is 3D Hubs, a platform that allows designers, once they have created 3D software files, to find 3D printer owners in their locales who can, for an agreed fee, print them out of the desired materials. Already, nearly 20,000 printers have registered with the site globally – most of them individuals who bought their machines for personal use but are not running them at anywhere near their full capacity. That network footprint, 3D Hub reports, means that one billion people on this planet already have a 3D printer within
My point is not that all these artisans and hobbyists and their shop-scale technology are collectively producing enough 3D-printed output to put a dent in the overall economy. For me, the most important “tipping point” isn’t about how many manufacturers have changed, it’s about how many minds have. Thanks to more accessible technology, we are now reaching a critical mass of people who, when they think about how things are made, think in a different way. You could say they are thinking in 3D.
It is simply a different world when the time lapse between creating a design and having a tangible object of that design in hand is tiny. One inventor I know says that with traditional CAD tools, he would spend 15-16 hours to build a new model, but with web-based tools he has cut that down to only 15-20 minutes. Once you begin to assume that your iterations will be so quick, many aspects of how you think about developing and delivering products change.
In the California leg of the 3DRV roadtrip, I talked with Jason Lopes of Legacy Effects, best known for its ingenious contributions to The Avengers, Avatar, and other Hollywood films requiring special effects, animatronics, and creature designs. It was Jason who first helped me see how having a new level of access to a technology can lead to different ways of thinking. The company has always relied on service bureaus with very high-end equipment to render its character designs, but a few years ago, it purchased a 3D printer to use for simple tasks in-house. Unexpectedly, that ended up changing a lot about its design project workflows. At the same time, having 3D printing technology right at hand opened people’s minds to possibilities for using it beyond the modeling of the characters themselves – for example, to print the parts, jigs, and fixtures also needed to complete work and deliver it to clients. Jason says that having a 3D printer in the office has changed the way he and his colleagues approach design overall.
The same can be said about the 3D software tools that are becoming widely available. As just one example, apps now exist to allow smartphone users to snap some pictures of an object and get a digital 3D rendering of it. That means, of course, that you can print a scale model of something – like an action figure of yourself, for example. But more importantly, if some approximation of an object you wish to create already exists, you now have a starting point for it rather than beginning with a blank screen. Beyond being a timesaver, that might spell the difference between pursuing your novel idea or never getting around to it.
It might not always occur to us that this is true, but the people who work as operations management executives in large manufacturing concerns are also people with outside lives, who take interest in new trends and who have hobbies and side projects suited to their skills. Some of the people going to work in today’s big businesses are young people who were not long ago learning about 3D in classrooms and science museums. Some aren’t so young but have kids doing that. Some are “makers” or even casual entrepreneurs, earning extra cash selling 3D printer access to their neighbors. The more people like this who arrive in a workplace, the more likely that workplace will be to undergo a change. This is how tipping points are reached: not when some key percentage of big companies has installed a technology, but when enough people see its possibilities. Expect to see global manufacturing transformed as more people see new ways to make things, because they’re thinking in 3D.