Is 3D Printing Dying?

Inc.’s John Brandon recently wrote about The Slow, Sad, and Ultimately Predictable Decline of 3D Printing. Uh, not so fast.

3D Printing is just getting started. For libraries whose adopted mission is to introduce people to emerging technologies, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so. But it has to be done right.

Another dead end?

Brandon cites a few reasons for his pessimism:

  • 3D printed objects are low quality and the printers are finicky
  • 3D printing growth is falling behind initial estimates
  • people in manufacturing are not impressed
  • and the costs are too high

I won’t get into all that’s wrong with this analysis, as I feel like most of it is incorrect, or at the very least, a temporary problem typical of a new technology. Instead, I’d like to discuss this in the library maker context. And in fact, you can apply these ideas to any tech project.

How to make failure a win—no matter what

Libraries are quick to jump on tech. Remember those QR Codes that would revolutionize mobile access? Did your library consider a Second Life branch? How about those Chromebooks!

Inevitably, these experiments are going to fail. But that’s okay.

As this blog often suggests, failure is a win when doing so teaches you something. Experimenting is the first step in the process of discovery. And that’s really what all these kinds of projects need to be.

In the case of a 3D Printing project at your library, it’s important to keep this notion front and center. A 3D Printing pilot with the goal of introducing the public to the technology can be successful if people simply try it out. That seems easy enough. But to be really successful, even this kind of basic 3D Printing project needs to have a fair amount of up-front planning attached to it.

Chicago Public Library created a successful Maker Lab. Their program was pretty simple: Hold regular classes showing people how to use the 3D printers and then allow those that completed the introductory course to use the printers in open studio lab times. When I tried this out at CPL, it was quite difficult to get a spot in the class due to popularity. The grant-funded project was so successful, based on the number of attendees, that it was extended and continues to this day.

As a grant-funded endeavor, CPL likely wrote out the specifics before any money was handed over. But even an internally-funded project should do this. Keep the goals simple and clear so expectations on the front line match those up the chain of command. Figure out what your measurements of success are before you even purchase the first printer. Be realistic. Always document everything. And return to that documentation throughout the project’s timeline.

Taking it to the next level

San Diego Public Library is an example of a Maker Project that went to the next level. Uyen Tran saw an opportunity to merge startup seminars with their maker tools at her library. She brought aspiring entrepreneurs into her library for a Startup Weekend event where budding innovators learned how the library could be a resource for them as they launched their companies. 3D printers were part of this successful program.

It’s important to note that Uyen already had the maker lab in place before she launched this project. And it would be risky for a library to skip the establishment of a rudimentary 3D printer program before trying for this more ambitious program.

But it could be done if that library was well organized with solid project managers and deep roots in the target community. But that’s a tall order to fill.

What’s the worst thing that could go wrong?

The worst thing that could go wrong is doubling down on failure: repeating one failed project after another without changing the flawed approach behind it.

I’d also add that libraries are often out ahead of the public on these technologies, so dead ends are inevitable. To address this, I would also add one more tactic to your tech projects: listening.

The public has lots of concerns about a variety of things. If you ask them, they’ll tell you all about them. Many of their concerns are directly related to libraries, but we can often help. We have permission to do so. People trust us. It’s a great position to be in.

But we have to ask them to tell us what’s on their mind. We have to listen. And then we need to think creatively.

Listening and thinking outside the box was how San Diego took their 3D Printers to the next level.

The Long Future of 3D Printing

The Wright Brothers first flight managed only 120 feet in the air. A year later, they flew 24 miles. These initial attempts looked nothing like the jet age and yet the technology of flight was born from these humble experiments.

Already, 3D printing is being adopted in multiple industries. Artists are using it to prototype their designs. Astronauts are using it to print parts aboard the International Space Station. Bio-engineers are now looking at printing stem-cell structures to replace organs and bones. We’re decades away from the jet age of 3D printing, but this tech is here to stay.

John Brandon’s read is incorrect simply because he’s looking at the current state and not seeing the long-term promise. When he asks a Ford engineer for his take on 3D Printing in the assembly process, he gets a smirk. Not a hotbed of innovation. What kind of reaction would he have gotten from an engineer at Tesla? At Apple? Fundamentally, he’s approaching 3D Printers from the wrong perspective and this is why it looks doomed.

Libraries should not make this mistake. The world is changing ever more quickly and the public needs us to help them navigate the new frontier. We need to do this methodically, with careful planning and a good dose of optimism.

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