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3D Printing: The Future or a Fad?

Posted by Duncan Ryan on September 28, 2017

Since its arrival in the public consciousness, 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has generated more hype and excitement than practically any other emerging technology. This technology has the potential to revolutionize production and supply chain management in the apparel industry, as well as many others. However, many people believe that the hype around 3-D printing has been largely unjustified. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the technology, adoption of 3-D printing has been slower than many originally predicted. These circumstances raise the interesting question of whether 3-D printing technology represents the future of manufacturing or is merely a passing fad.

Hype and Inflated Expectations 

Though all emerging technologies are subject to some degree of overly optimistic enthusiasm, the hype surrounding 3-D printing has been, in many cases, extreme. In 2013, for example, an article published in Harvard Business Review predicted that widespread adoption of additive manufacturing technology would overturn decades of macroeconomic trends and end China's global manufacturing dominance. Others have predicted the new technology, with its ability to manufacture goods outside of a factory context, would reverse such fundamental trends as urbanization.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the hype around 3-D printing is that it falls into a largely predictable pattern of enthusiasm surrounding new technologies. This pattern is known as the Gartner Hype Cycle, named for the research firm that identified it. The Gartner cycle suggests that most new technologies pass through five main phases on their way to peak productivity:

  • Innovation Trigger: This is an early point at which the concept behind a technology has been proven, but few or no functional products exist.

  • Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early successes produce extreme enthusiasm that is not in line with the reality of the still-developing technology. This peak represents the highest hype point in the life of a technology.

  • Trough of Disillusionment: The technology fails to meet unrealistic expectations, leading many companies involved in producing it to go under.

  • Slope of Enlightenment: A period of slow but steady adoption of a technology. Users begin to understand the technology's limitations. This period often sees the development of more real-world uses for a given technology.

  • Plateau of Productivity: The technology begins to realize its potential and sees use in day-to-day life. Unrealistic hype gives way to realistic expectations, and the technology becomes economically viable.

1200px-Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg.pngAs extreme as it has been, the hype around 3-D printing has largely followed the Gartner pattern. When the end of China as a global manufacturing giant was predicted, consumer 3-D printing was at the top of the Peak of Inflated Expectations, and enterprise 3-D printing had barely entered the Slope of Enlightenment. 3-D printing last appeared in the annual Gartner report in 2015, when enterprise printing was approaching the Plateau of Productivity and consumer printing was entering the Trough of Disillusionment.

The Reality Behind the Hype

Despite the unrealistic expectations, 3-D printing at both the business and consumer level has made enormous strides over the past few years. A 2016 survey found that about two-thirds of American manufacturers used additive manufacturing in some way, with 51 percent using it for at least some type of end-user production. When it came to parts production, a remarkable 64 percent of the businesses surveyed said they believed that, within the next five years, 3-D printing would be used to make parts that were no longer mass-produced.

Accompanying this increased use in actual production has been a surge of global investment in 3-D printing technology. In 2016, the number of 3-D printers shipped worldwide represented a 29 percent increase over the previous year. Based on current projections, spending on additive manufacturing technology is expected to average a growth rate of 22.3 percent over the next five years.

Given the growing use of 3-D printing, widespread adoption at both the consumer and manufacturer level and high growth projections for the next several years, it is clear that the global market does not view it as a passing fad. As unrealistic expectations fade, real-world applications of 3-D printing in manufacturing continue to emerge in their place. Use of 3-D printing in the area of textiles and apparel, for example, has become a functional reality in recent years. As the technology continues to mature, we can expect to see more and more applications develop in this and other industries. 

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Topics: 3D, 3D printing, Technology

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