Is 3D printing creating a movement strong enough to move beyond the imminent threat of a sudden pop?
By Randall S. Newton
Most of us at Jon Peddie Research are old enough to have witnessed more bubble moments in the tech industry than we care to recall. Like stock market bubbles (to which they are usually connected at the bubble-hip) tech bubbles start with hype, grow with enthusiasm, float on a greedy breeze, and pop when poked by a pin of bitter unfulfilled expectations. Most of the promises made during the dotcom bubble era (1997-2001) came true only after a series of spectacular failures, when “burn rate” (the speed at which a start-up could spend its investors’ money) went from being a Dionysian mantra to a prophecy of sudden doom. By 2001 it was all over but the coining of new terms for spectacular failure (dot-bomb, irrational exuberance, 404, dark fiber, AO-Hell).
For the past 18 months or so the specter of a new tech bubble has been hovering over the landscape, arising from a corner of the tech universe called 3D printing. Industry experts prefer to call it Additive Manufacturing or Rapid Prototyping, and they wish to remind everyone that the technology has been around for 20 years. Indeed, 3D printing by any name has been growing nicely for many years, achieving a CAGR of 29.4% in 2011. The industrial users of 3D printing and their supporting core of vendors and analysts love their 3D printers, but they are not the source of the new bubble apparition. To find its source we must look beyond commerce and Mammon, and into the soul of a new generation.
The spirit of the 3D printing bubble rises from the prayers of the Makers, a new tech priesthood who cut their teeth on a faith tutored by dotcomism. They grew to maturity believing anybody could create a website or at least throw together a blog that just might be read by millions. After they started having kids, and the kids grew out of diapers and discovered txting, the Makers realized there must be more to life than pounding the digital crap out of keyboards 10 hours a day. While working by day in HTML and Excel, on weekends these Maker acolytes first explored baking or car repair or LEGO robots. Then one of them noticed a little company called Z Corp, which made “printers” capable of extruding Star Wars characters or roach clips from hardened sand. From there interest exploded, especially once the open source cult released RipRap, a DIY 3D printer that could turn ABS plastic into objects d’adoration.
Recently at SXSW—the Maker equivalent of Mardi Gras without penance afterward— MakerBot High Priest Bre Pettis made a sacred oath to vendor-bond with Autodesk, scoring legitimacy from the CAD priesthood whose tools are required by the Makers. So compelling is the vision of the Makers that Autodesk CEO Carl Bass (who counts himself among the Makers) has agreed to experiment with selling hardware, something his company has never before considered.
From here it would be easy to write Act III, in which the zealots rise up in a passionate but ultimately doomed effort to convert every act of profane commerce into a sacred 3D printathon of mass customization and new Risk armies. But this just might be one tech bubble to literally grow legs and a hide tough enough to avoid the pin pricks. The industrial side of 3D printing keeps inventing cool new ways to give digital guidance to ever-finer resolutions of physical pixels made from an ever-increasing list of ingredients. Gold, silver, and platinum have joined the baser elements like ABS plastic, paper, and sand. Clever young padres and madres fill Instructable.com and Pinterest with homilies that hone the Maker intellect and fuel creative passions. So far, when expectations rise among the Makers, the new printer models and new materials appear. Perhaps we are witnessing the rise of a bubble such as The Wizard rode into Oz, one tough enough to pass through the barriers of evil that sought to pop.