Caution Disruptive Technology Ahead - 3D PRINTING

3d Printing – Disruptor Or Distraction?

3d Printing Disruptor Or Distraction?

Many technologies are put forward as disruptive. But what does that really mean and does 3d Printing fit into the category of being a truly disruptive innovation or technology? I have flip flopped from one side to the other a few times myself. So first things first, what defines a disruptive technology?

Caution Disruptive Technology Ahead - 3D PRINTING
Caution Disruptive Technology Ahead – 3D PRINTING

A disruptive technology is one that changes the rules. It basically supplants many technologies that was there before with its own DNA.  It up ends markets and traditional beneficiaries of whole industries.  Hence the term disruptive.

The disruptor may leave a crop of technical skills, knowledge and previous measures of success irrelevant. A disruptor generally completely changes the cost of production or supply, making competition with it almost pointless in the old ways.

Often a disruptive technology will leave the incumbents of an industry wondering what happened and unable to adapt. Usually the disruptive technology spawns or enables a number of other technologies that were not really possible previously.

A disruptive technology is often much more apparent as a true ‘disruptor’ the further on in time we travel from its invention and uptake. A key characteristic of a true disruptor is that will most likely it will be characterised by opposition and denial of the main stream.

In many cases what will be disrupted is often unforeseen.

So What Are Some Good Examples Of Disruptive Technologies?

Here are a few disruptors that spring to mind for me as we progress through modern industrial history.

  • The Henry Ford Production Line
  • The Telephone
  • Wireless Communication
  • Radar
  • The Personal Computer
  • The World Wide Web

One disruptor quite often enables more disruptors.  Let’s follow a couple of example of the World Wide Web and look at some further disruptors it enabled…

Disruptors Can Enable More Disruptors

World Wide Web - Google Disruptor

World Wide Web Enabled Crowd Funding
World Wide Web Enabled Crowd Funding – Disrupted Traditional Startup Funding Methods

It does seem true that most disruptors are a combination of many smaller disruptive or atomic inventions and innovations. Here is a chart showing desktop publishing as a disruption example.


Of course these disruptors and their flow on resulting ripple affects are now much more obvious and easy to see in hind site. But at the time when they were unfolding, they were not necessarily seen as disruptive technologies.

It’s Disruption – It’s Not A Democracy

If you had asked for a majority vote in the early stages of any of these events as they were rolling out. It is likely that the vote would have told you that the incumbents would never be dislodged or adversely affected.

All the facts and statistics could easily have been laid down to support that case. This is because, inherent to any disruptor is the seemingly unconventional nature of the technology. Often it requires out of the box thinking to be able to comprehend it and its impact.  It is also often associated with early failures due to the prototypical nature of the technologies and innovations.

Some disruptors are not apparent to us and operate in a specialised niche. Unless we are directly affected then we may not be fully aware of them. An example could be GE’s integration of funding into major infrastructure project delivery. This let to significant global change. As a result we saw internationally, massive increase in the launches of huge capital expenditure projects.

Perhaps another great example of a disruptor, is the ‘Open Source Software’ movement. This disruptor could at a stretch, be credited with destabilising some of the strongest players in the software and operating systems space such as Microsoft. The Smart Phone is probably a further disruptive element that has contributed to that destabilisation.

Shortly before the impact of these disruptors were felt, most people would have sworn that nothing could unseat Microsoft in it’s world dominance and growth trajectory.  Of course it is not one or two disruptors that took the toll it was possibly 100 or more.

Is 3D Printing Going To Take The Disruptor Title?

3d Printing has been flying under the radar for many people. I often ask people I talk to what they think about the technology.  A very high proportion are not really familiar with it at all.  Which leads me to think that the general public may not really be aware of what is going on in this space, or at the least not really interested.

The argument can be made, that it is not disruptive at all and just novelty value.

So What Is The Truth?

Is 3d Printing Truly Disruptive?

If So, Where And What Will Be The Flow On Affects?

What Industries Will Be Most Impacted?

If we model 3d Printing in the same way as we did the Desktop Publishing example the enabling technologies are:

  • Computer Aided Design Software (CAD) Is Open Sourced / Low Cost And Purchase Costs Reach A Tipping Point
  • 3d Design Sharing Databases Which Are Web Enabled
  • 3d Printers Are Designed For Various Specific Market Segments
  • 3d Printer Purchase Costs Reach A Tipping Point
  • 3d Scanners Become Readily Available And Purchase Costs Reach A Tipping Point

In many of these cases the tipping point has been reached where the cost threshold is met for more and more market segments. This tipping point is like what happened with Henry Fords production line, which brought the automobile into the reach of the average consumer.

Once this tipping point is met then the penetration of the disruptive technology explodes. It could be said that what we have seen is that over the last couple of years this tipping point has been reached by a range of 3d Printing related technologies.

So we may be seeing the all important threshold being reached with 3d Printing. But is that going to see us experiencing 3d Printing as a disruptive technology? I would put the case that it is a ‘yes’.

The important thing to consider is that this disruption may not be fully realised as quickly as would be expected. Often when we look back on history our minds see a footnote of the change rather then the actual time it took for the disruption to full unfold.

It can take many years or even decades for the full force of the disruptive technology to penetrate fully into society. So what we are likely seeing with 3d Printing is the foot of the curve. Things will happen quickly from here, due to the speed with which the technology is evolving, adapting and specialising. It could still be another 10 years or more before we see the full affect on many sectors.

3d Printing technology still needs to improve its performance to be a demonstrated and credible disruptor in many areas. The challengers and early adopters still need to have a breakthrough version of the technology. The traditional incumbents in manufacturing still need to either move or fail.

As I noted in a previous post, sometimes we need to rename, reframe and reposition technologies to truly see them rise. 3d Printing may not ultimately be the right term for the true disruption that is going on. It could be that we are seeing the rise of the ‘Desktop Factory’. The reframing means that the true impact can be better understood.

The reframing to ‘Desktop Factory’ means that we can see the true importance of specialisation of many aspects of the technology. Specialisation in things like printing methods, materials qualities, properties, colours, finishing and assembly modules.

Why Do The US Seem To Be Betting So Big On 3d Printing?

The reason here in my opinion is that the United States has been dealt a blow after blow to its manufacturing sector over recent history.  With seemingly little ability to compete against countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and others.  More recently the rise of China as the manufacturing hub for the first world has dealt an almost catastrophic blow.  This of course needed to be countered in some way.

3d Printing at its roots changes the rules for manufacturing.  3d Printing impacts on the core components of the modern industrial revolution.

  1. The assembly line*
  2. Manufacturing at scale*
  3. Low cost labour*

The US or 1st world problem, is that its inherent high cost of labour makes manufacturing less viable.  This causes manufacturing to migrate to the low cost provider. This concept is at the heart of the  ‘Wild Gees Model‘ .

The thesis of the Wild Gees Model, is that manufacturing will simply migrate to where the conditions are best to do so.  The above 3 factors currently contribute to that cost equation very heavily.  Of course the case can be made that 3d Printing disrupts each of those fundamental equations.*

3d Printing Disrupts Wild Geese Model
3d Printing Disrupts Wild Geese Model

So if we follow our Wild Geese model through.  How would the geese’s behaviour be affected if all their needs were met wherever they were?  Would they need to migrate any more?  It would seem that the US is betting that they won’t!

So Where Is Disruption Most Likely To Occur?

Currently we are seeing 3d Printing operating most closely to a disruptor in particular areas such as:

  • Aerospace
  • Medical / Bio-mechanical
  • Rapid Prototyping / Models
  • Rapid Manufacturing
  • Bespoke Manufacturing / Short Run Personalisation
  • Home / Hobby / DIY

For some special purpose cases it is possible for a manufacturer to go straight to market with a component or finished article. A great example of this is a case where ‘Minimizer’ a truck manufacturer HERE. ‘Minimizer’ used 3d Printing to go straight to market with 3d Printed truck fenders.

There will be more and more examples of this sort of early adoption as the technologies functional output parameters improve. Probably one of the greatest explosions and possibly the one that demonstrates the fact that 3d Printing is indeed a disruptor is the health sector. Where 3d Printers are being used to produced things like:

Vertebrae replacements 
Facial reconstruction inserts 
– Printing of human kidney and liver for testing by Organovo
– Creation of prosthetics

An important characteristic for 3d Printing, that changes the manufacturing rules for many needs such as where shipping is a big problem.  For a wild example, consider the cost of shipping new parts to space.  The impractical nature of finding you need a replacement part on Mars!

– 3d Printing means that manufacturing can be done at the point of need.

Not only does 3d Printing allow for creation at the point of need.  It also allows for extremely short lead times compared to a setting up to run replacement parts in the normal way.

The main reason that the explosion is happening in the bio medical space, aerospace and some other areas so rapidly is that there may not be so many impediments of a commercial nature.

Generally the time it takes to produce a result is not so commercially sensitive for example. Medical equipment, prototyping and testing is generally quite expensive so it could be said that the tipping point here for 3d Printing has already been well an truly reached. Not to mention being able to create items with designs and properties that were nearly impossible for an individual to create easily with existing technologies.

People may have assumed that the real disruption is coming in the retail mass consumer or DIY space. But it may be that this was an assumption rather than a reality. There is indeed money to be made selling 3d Printers into the home user DIY market and there is indeed some disruption there. But the true disruptions will likely come as more specialised 3d Printing or Desktop Factories are used to produced niche products that are ‘fit for purpose‘.

These Desktop Factories will combine more than just 3d Printing and include modules that may apply finishing and assembly.  They will also need to combine specialised materials into the printing and finishing process.

Where there is military or special security requirements a technology like 3d Printing has a very strong case.  The amount of intellectual/military property that has been lost over time to other countries add up to a threat.  3d Printing brings manufacturing much closer to home and could assist in avoiding specialist equipment manufacturing flowing to a competitor.

Loss of intellectual property is also an issue for many large US companies.  It is one of the main issues that has concerned US companies that manufacture in China.

What Will 3d Printing Disrupt Into The Future?

3d Printing will continue to disrupt the medical establishment and will not be likely to meet great resistance. It will continue to be a viable alternative to many methods of producing medical aids in all sorts of forms.  The strong factors driving disruption here are the characteristics of:

  • Personalisation
  • Short run
  • Rapid Prototyping / Testing
  • Production At Point Of Need
  • Short Lead Time
  • Democratisation Of Production

We may be shocked when we go to a dentist only to be told that the implant we need for a tooth that has been knocked out in a sporting injury will be back in 15 minutes ready implant. This would enable us to be walking out of the surgery with a replacement tooth in less than an hour.

Perhaps we would be pleased with the service, if a set of braces were produced that were completely personalised to our child’s mouth and required adjustment.  If this was done while we were waiting, complete and tested on the day today we would be amazed… Compare that to the current saga.

Think of the dentist that does use the new methods and then compare him/her to the dentist that does not use 3d Printing or the Desktop Factory.  It is clear that one would soon fall out of the race.

Perhaps we won’t be so amazed, as we watch the current affairs show in ten years time that is doing an expose on the fast food restaurant for using a heavily enhanced version of a 3d hologram for advertising.  Yes, I can see them now, comparing that picture to the hamburger that is being 3d Printed on the Desktop Hamburger factory and saying to their viewers, “Do they look the same to you?!”.

I can easily envisage food being printed and assembled to your design with virtually no human intervention.  Whether that be cakes, confectionaries, pizza’s or hamburgers.  Many years ago this was pure science fantasy.  But now considering the 3d Printing technologies and the rate of change it is seemingly close to arrival.

The prediction would be that firstly in the US more and more manufacturing that fits the growing capabilities of “3d Printing” and Desktop Manufacturing technologies will be drawn back home.  Some of this will of course also be driven by nationalism and be irrational.  But much will be driven by the fundamentals outlined here.

Conclusions:  So Is 3d Printing A Disruptive Technology?

The focal point for 3d Printing has been on the growing DIY and consumer end.  Which has served to make many more people aware of what is going on in the 3d Printing space.  That has served to drive significant investment in companies like 3d Systems and earlier in Makerbot.  But over time the true disruptive fundamentals of 3d Printing or perhaps the Desktop Factory, will push adoption.

We are at such an early stage of the disruption.  It’s easy to get focused on looking only at the swishing and whirring of a 3d Printing head in some guys home workshop as he produces a model of Yoda.  That focus can distract from the coming revolution we are about to see.

If we look at the fundamentals that 3d Printing and the coming Desktop Factory will affect, we can see one of the biggest impending disruptive technologies of our time on its way.  It may indeed be set to reconfigure the global manufacturing landscape and potentially bring on the 3rd phase of the industrial revolution.




3d Printing A Disruptive Technology

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