Why much of the reporting on additive manufacturing is misguided

An interesting post by Scott Locklin on why much of the reporting on additive manufacturing is silly and misguided.

http://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/bad-engineering-journalism-reporting-on-3-d-printing-of-guns/

I agree with everything he says, but not where some of my colleagues go with similar arguments.  Locklin doesn’t fall in the trap of saying that because home 3D printers can’t make many useful parts now, they’ll never make useful parts and they’ll never disrupt industries.  But his article could lead some to think that.

3D printers can’t make the same quality plastic parts as traditional injection molding machines can.  They can only make much lower strength parts, with worse dimensional accuracy.  But take that statement, replace “3D printers”, “plastic”, and “injection molding” with “Electric arc furnaces”, “steel”, and “blast furnaces” and you’ve got a typical statement from 1980.  But, like many new technologies, the capability of electric arc furnaces increased quickly and cost dropped very fast, eventually driving the traditional steel makers out of the market and out of business.

The same is happening with 3D printers – I bought my first Makerbot in 2009 and my second in 2012 and the improvement in speed, quality, and reliability is astonishing.  While we’re years away (at best) from a 3D printer being able to make a good quality brick that snaps together with a LEGO brick, we’re not far from being able to make specialized pieces out of ABS plastic (the same material LEGO bricks are made from) that would let your kid build that castle or race car they couldn’t build otherwise.

Another area where Locklin’s right but the larger point may be different is the potential for additive manufacturing to invade the home.  He’s right – it’s unlikely that we’ll put many types of additive manufacturing in our home.  Laser sintering, photo-catalyzed resins, and deposited binders are all pretty nasty stuff.  The powders they use in sintering are necessarily very fine-grained and would be pretty nasty if inhaled.  The liquids that are photo-catalyzed would send you to the hospital if you drank them.  But just because we won’t install them at home doesn’t mean that the impacts won’t be huge.  You can already choose from a large number of service bureaus that will print up your part design using whatever process you want, quickly and cheaply.

The right metaphor to use for 3D printing is photo processing, not document printing.  Desktop printers are everywhere now, so people rarely need to go to a Kinko’s to print something out. But most people still send their important photos out to a photo processor.  Digital photography has completely changed the way we take pictures and the way we print them, but we still go outside the home to get our prints made.  The same is going to be true for some types of manufacturing.

For a discussion of which types of manufacturing are likely to be disrupted, see my next post on the QUICKLY framework.

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