3D printing and the hype cycle

3D printing is undoubtedly a game changing technology that changes the economics and scalability of manufacturing. But is it possible the technology is becoming overhyped?

Two stories today illustrate the opportunities and potential of 3D printing: a homemade SLR camera and NASA manufacturing its own rocket parts.

NASA’s experiment shows how precision, low demand components could be made. One of the problems with procuring parts like rocket engine injectors is that the production runs are low, so the manufacturing costs are high given there are no economies of scale involve.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, also has the advantage that components can be manufactured in one piece rather than requiring assembly from a number of different parts. In turn, this reduces production times and errors.

Printing your own camera seems a bit of waste of time and money seeing that cameras aren’t particularly expensive and the one printed isn’t a digital SLR – you have to find somewhere to buy and process the film.

The point though with Bozardeux’s project is that it is open source – anyone can modify or adapt the design and that is where the potential lies.

While the possibilities are endless with 3D printing, it may well be that the technology is being overhyped. Both the rocket engine injector and the SLR camera are early stage proofs of concept, neither are ready for full-time use.

It also has to be kept in mind that traditional manufacturing methods aren’t going away – there will always be products more suited to mass production or using materials that can’t be fed through a 3D printer.

Right now we’re in the early stage of the hype cycle with 3D printing, and while the potential is clear, the immediate future of the technology being oversold is also becoming apparent.

That of course means opportunity for many entrepreneurs and their investors, but it also means you have to be very careful in choosing technologies or where to place your bets.

In poker it’s said if you don’t know who the patsy is at the table, then it’s probably you. The same is true when a new technology is being hyped.

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