I was working on a computer networking product with a metal enclosure. The metal enclosures had high tooling costs and long lead times. We wanted enclosures for the first prototypes for preliminary thermal testing, for managers to see the look-and-feel, and to have something to hold the boards during testing outside the lab. My colleague explained to me we could get prototype enclosures on a few days’ turn from a plastic prototyping shop using 3D printing. The year was 1999.
People outside the engineering industry will probably be surprised that 3D printing has been around for decades.
Awareness of 3D printing surged in the past few years when printers intended for personal use appeared. I first heard about “desktop” 3D printers in 2008 when a colleague handed me a plastic adjustable wrench a sales rep had given him that had been printed as one piece, not assembled, from a “desktop” 3D printer.
The surge in popularity came in the next few years. At first it seemed like hype. When I read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution last year, through, I started to see how 3D printing technology could be part of a real manufacturing revolution.
In Makers, Chris Anderson likens 3D printing to the early days of computer networking in the early 90s. It was poised to transform the world but not yet accessible to the public.
In January of 2013, three months after Makers was published, the Big Bang Theory aired an episode poking fun at the notion that 3D printing will usher in a manufacturing revolution.
In the show the characters purchase a 3D printer and use it to make minifigures of themselves. Bernadette disapproves of her husband’s purchase because the printer doesn’t have much practical use.
This storyline is remarkably similar to an episode of Married with Children, that aired in 1989, in which Al Bundy disapproves of his wife’s purchase of a personal computer for the same reasons. One joke involves a character’s foolish notion that you ought to be able to type in a single word and get an encyclopedia entry on the topic.
The episode mentions the computer is equipped with a modem. This means it could share files using BBSs. Downloading a few seconds of AM-radio-quality audio or a 640x480 picture, however, would take several minutes. A whole song at a better quality would have taken a significant chunk of its hard drive and would have taken a good part of a day. Most BBSs would not allow one user to do this. (I’m sure my parents were grateful for BBS time limits.) It was completely impractical.
Amazingly just ten years later, many people widely shared songs using Napster and other peer-to-peer software. Ten years after that, downloading became a standard method of retail delivery of music and video.
The Married with Children episode stayed in my memory because I was a computer hobbyist at the time. The show struck me as unfair because computers were more than just glorified typewriters. It was still funny, though, because I accepted what turned out to be an incorrect premise that while computers were great for financial institutions and technology companies, the average person would never have a use for a computer sitting in his home.
My initial reaction to my colleague handing me the plastic adjustable wrench is remarkably similar to my reaction to the TV show about the computer 24 years ago: Shops have been using 3D printing for decades. Why do I need it in my own lab?
Chris Anderson points out that people are already creating mechanical models for parts and sharing them online. 3D printing allows hobbyists to assemble lab equipment for things like biotech research inexpensively. The Internet allowed the distribution of digital content way down the long tail of popularity, where it previously was impractical to waste shelf space on niche content. Anderson says 3D printing technology extends that same trend to mechanical objects. As printers support more materials, they move closer to the functionality of “replicators” on Star Trek.
In the Big Bang episode, the 3D printer serving as the source of conflict and comedy cost $5,000. A computer from in the 1989 Married With Children episode cost $1900, which is $3,600 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation. We may be a few years further along into the revolution because a 3D printer today costs only $1300. I will want to revisit the Big Bang episode in 2037 to hear the jokes about 3D printers then.
Pop Culture References:
The Big Bang Theory episode is The Cooper/Kripke Inversion.
The Married with Children episode is The Computer Show.
Relevant Business Books
The Long Tail - This classic digs into the process by which technologies make a product or service available to new markets. We may see this classic process of commoditization / decommiditization happening in the world of 3D printing.
The Lean Startup - At one point Ries says it was easier to know what to work on in the past because people needed more basic manufactured goods. Automation has given us abundance, making it necessary to test any value proposition before expending too much effort on it.