Let's curb 3-D printer enthusiasm

Vivek Wadhwa / Special to The Washington Post /

Published Aug 18, 2013 at 05:00AM

When the White House hypes a technology, it’s time to worry. In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama said 3-D printing will “revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” He described this as the future of manufacturing. The popular media is increasingly touting 3-D 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 3-D 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, 3-D 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 cellphones. Just recall how disappointed we were when cellphones 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 of Israel-based Stratasys, which makes 3-D printers, said in an email that he likens the progression of 3-D technologies to Moore’s Law. According to his computations, the resolution and speed of inkjet-based 3-D 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 breadbox — 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 CEO Carl Bass highlights another problem: the cost of raw materials. He says that 3-D manufacturers have adopted the same business model as inkjet printers; they charge little for hardware but make their profits on cartridges. Materials for 3-D printing sell for up to 100 times the cost of the commodity. Bass says that better business models and more breakthroughs are needed in 3-D 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 which have been inhibiting competition — and innovation. One technology in particular, called “selective laser sintering,” produces very high-quality 3-D 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 3-D technology called “fused deposition modeling.”

Shochet says that a revolution is already happening, but at a different place than most people think. He says that “while consumers can’t snap their fingers and have an object instantly printed, the people who are impacted by 3-D 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 3-D 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.

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