2014 non-trends: 3D printing

Marketing Week’s “Marketing Trends for 2014” includes an entry for 3D printing becoming mainstream and gaining wider adoption within marketing campaigns as brands begin “using it at scale”.

Let me be the first of the year to call B.S on that one. I cannot conceive of any scalable marketing campaign that could be executed more cost effectively using 3D printing in the next 12 months.

I’m not dismissing 3D printing; some of the potential applications are inspiring and it’s an established technology. But will it bring about a third industrial revolution anytime soon? I’m not so sure. As we ride the upward trajectory of the hype cycle, the media are making it difficult to separate spin from reality.

The technology here isn’t new. It’s an 80’s technology used for prototyping. What’s happening is a rapid drop in the price point making desktop 3D printers accessible to a wider audience. But technology isn’t the only factor to accessibility.

In their current form, 3D printers are still prototyping machines for small scale production (so suggesting wider adoption as brands begin “using it at scale” seems something of an oxymoron).

But even then, in the land of hobbyists and prototypers, most folks aren’t designers, nor do they have the skills required to complete complex CAD-enabled 3D designs. I won’t even get started on the complexity of mechanical engineering. People train for years to understand how to create functional, working products.

So, that leaves us with downloading 3D printing pattern and printing the product at home.

Ever wondered why most of the available patterns are simple chess pieces, smartphone covers, fantasy figurines etc? Simply, in their current form 3D printers use a single material. It’s hugely limiting when you consider that most objects use multiple materials.

Want to home-print a circuit board? Forget it; at least while you remain limited to a single non-conductive plastic material.

Want to home-print a spare part for your car? I wouldn’t trust my life on it.

I’m not saying that advancements won’t come. Of course they will.  But can we get the hype cycle into perspective. Anyone suggesting mainstream adoption of 3D printing in the coming 2-3 years is getting carried away.

Let’s not forget that desktop CNC machines have been around for several years at comparable prices. They certainly haven’t sparked a new wave of garage manufacturing or marketing innovation for the same reasons, despite being able to work with a far wider array of materials. They remain – like 3D printing – prototyping machines.

We are at least 10 years away from the promises we read in the media. Not one of the current methods for home 3D printing (thermal fusing of plastic filaments, UV light to cut polymer resin, glue to bind resin powder etc) comes close to reaching the standards of a professionally-tooled factory, nor does the material used. Indeed, while the price falls for home 3D printers they are still a far cry from those used by engineering firms to fulfil “just in time manufacturing” of components – many of those use titanium powder in their production, and are priced not in the thousands, but millions.

The Marketing Week trends piece was contributed by a brand marketing director at a UK mobile operator, so when he claims we’ll see “bigger, more significant 3D campaigns and projects next year”, I’m going to take a wild guess and say he’s thinking about personalised smartphone cases.

3D printing is cool. Of course it is. But let me save you some embarrassment (should you be thinking about smartphone cases). The technology has been there for more than a decade, but the economics remain unchanged; the minute you start scaling into the thousands, your money is better spend tooling a factory line and adding personalised digital printing if required.

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