Reality sets in for 3D printing: The hype is over

By now, most people have heard of 3D printing. We’ve all been told by now that 3D printing can solve humanity’s problems: produce cheaper buildings, download and print useful products at home, fabricate human organs on-demand, etc. The list goes on. While the concept of 3D printing certainly has the potential to revolutionize our everyday life, the technology is not ready for prime time.

Stock plummet
Two companies dominate the 3D printing market: 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) and Stratasys (NYSE: SSYS). Last January, both companies were trading at their highest stock price since inception. Since then, both stocks have been on a long, painful decline. 3D Systems traded at its lowest price this January at $28.33 per share, compared to $96.42 last January!

What does this mean for 3D printing? It means the hype is finally over. Reality has set in. You can’t make an iPhone on your home 3D printer like you were promised. You can’t get an FDA-approved replacement liver. You can’t instruct your 3D printer robot to make dinner for you.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle
So what’s next for 3D printing? Well, if history tells us anything, the industry is likely to bounce back over the next few years with true, tangible advancements and market-ready applications. Most new technologies follow a predictable curve known as Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

When new technology is first introduced to the public as a prototype, the media begins to report on it, calling it the best thing since sliced bread. This is the technology trigger that initiates the hype. The public gets excited, startup companies emerge, investors pile their money, and the technology officially becomes “sexy.”

When the new technology becomes mainstream, it is known to hit the Peak of Inflated Expectations. In January 2014, 3D Printing officially reached its peak, thus relating to the peak in stock prices. One could argue that the Consumer Electronics Show, which takes place in January every year, contributes to new technologies reaching their peaks due to all of the publicity and optimism in the air.

Next, the technology slides into the Trough of Disillusionment as soon as the media starts to report on unmet expectations. 3D Printing is currently sitting near the valley of the Trough of Disillusionment.
What’s next for 3D printing?
Here’s where it gets exciting. Scientists and engineers are using all of this media criticism as feedback in their product development loop. They are now back at the drawing boards, learning from their recent failures, and rolling up their sleeves until acceptable results are achieved. It’s all up from here: the number of useful patents, the stock prices and the mainstream market adoption.

Just because 3D printing technology doesn’t currently allow you to 3D print an iPhone doesn’t mean it never will. First, the mechanical engineers will determine how to significantly increase the resolution and speed. Then, the material scientists will create conductive ink that doesn’t clog the printer. Then, the systems engineers will design a 3D printer that works in conjunction with a pick-and-place machine to lay down the electronic components in between the layers. Finally, the industrial engineers and supply chain managers will determine how to lower the cost to a reasonable price point.

Finally, after years of intense R&D and patent wars, consumers will have the ability to 3D print their smartphones from home. This process is not quick, but it is inevitable.

Disclaimer: I own stock in 3D Systems. Opinions expressed are my own and should not be considered investment advice nor an invitation to buy or sell shares of any company mentioned. Investors should perform their own due diligence and consult with a registered investment advisor prior to making any investment decision.

Jesse DePinto is a Milwaukee-based serial entrepreneur and business technology consultant, helping clients prepare for technological revolutions such as 3D printing, virtual reality, wearable technology and the Internet of Things. He holds a mechanical engineer degree and reviews products for the Internet of Things in his spare time at StayAtHomeNerd.com. You can connect with him via email at jesse.depinto@gmail.com, via cell phone at (937) 829-3720, or via social media at LinkedIn.com/in/JesseDePinto or Twitter.com/JesseDePinto.

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