3D printing: Revolution or hype?

Summary:A 3D printer in every home? The next industrial revolution? Our debaters struggle to separate fact from fiction.

Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin

Revolution

or

Hype

Charlie Osborne

Charlie Osborne

Best Argument: Revolution

58%
42%

Audience Favored: Revolution (58%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

3D printing will change us

Lyndsey Gilpin: 3D printing is going to change the world. 3D printing will change us: the way we prepare food, how we replace broken objects, how we exchange gifts, how we play with our children. It will affect our power consumption, our time management, our imagination. It will also radically change every industry we interact with: uutomotive, food, medical, aerospace, manufacturing, and shipping.

3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but its moment in the sun is just beginning. We haven't even scratched the surface of 3D printers' potential in the industrial and consumer worlds. As innovators push the limits of this technology by using open source design platforms, crowdfunding campaigns, energy efficient models and creative materials, the industry will only grow more rapidly. The real questions are whether society is ready for the change -- and if the laws can keep up with it.

See also:

 

Missing a number of core features

Charlie Osborne: 3D printing is no doubt a technology which can benefit a number of industries, including manufacturing and healthcare. The technology has sparked the imagination of people in the consumer space -- the hefty investment of a tiny $299 home 3D printer on Kickstarter recently supporting this -- but in the end, it is missing a number of core features to truly make it "revolutionary."

Not only is additive manufacturing still expensive and generally complicated, but it is missing user-friendly software that will introduce it properly in to the consumer space. While images of 3D printed guns make us think "Wow! I can do that!," it is not going to decentralize manufacturing, create a second manufacturing revolution or make sure we are all touting our own plastic weaponry any time soon.

3D printing is valuable, but not easy. You need training, technological acumen and money behind you to enjoy it at home. We're not going to wake up one day and be able to print off our own clothes and tools quickly and cheaply, and so 3D printing, to be of any use in business, will stay fixed in the manufacturing space rather than truly ever enter the consumer realm.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome

    Glad you joined us for this week's debate. We're going 3D. Are you ready?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    I'm set

    We're changing the world.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    There's something missing

    Star Trek's Enterprise hasn't launched yet.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The next big thing?

    3D printing is arguably the hottest new category in the tech industry, even though it's not really that new. Why is it suddenly so red-hot and does it deserve the title of "next big thing"?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's building momentum

    3D printing dates back to the 1980s when it was invented by 3D Systems. However, in the past couple of years, the industry has taken off. Much of this can be attributed to the invention of desktop 3D printers. The invention of MakerBot really kicked off this movement in 2012 because of its somewhat affordable price for the average person or small business, its open source platform for designs, and its exceptional branding. After MakerBot, and with the increase in popularity of crowdsourcing and open source websites meant for sharing ideas, the maker community really started gaining traction. Artists, entrepreneurs, technologists, hackers, and enthusiasts all share the space, creating designs and building off each other's ideas.

    Big companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys joined the game by making desktop printers as well. The ability to use more materials has also been a catalyst for this movement. In addition to metal and plastic, we can now print with carbon fiber, biological materials, glass, sandstone, and ceramic, and the list continues to grow. It was as if the technology needed creative entrepreneurs to show the world what exactly a 3D printer can do, and now the big companies are following. I definitely think it will be the next big thing. It will completely revolutionize our lives in the next few years.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    It's still in testing

    While the technology has been around for decades, key patents, restricted materials and the high price of printers themselves has kept the technology firmly within manufacturing.

    However, patents have expired and prices have gone down drastically in the past few years -- in the same way that standard paper printers started off in businesses and eventually made their way into our homes -- and so designers, consumers and businesses have begun jumping on the technology and what it can potentially offer.

    Technological trends come and go, some leave a mark, and some do not. The mobility trend has resulted in declining PC sales and has spread worldwide, whereas we are yet to see whether wearable technology captures the imagination of the consumer in the same way.

    The "next big thing" needs to insinuate itself into the consumer realm -- as well as the majority of home and businesses to deserve the name. 3D printing, although exciting and interesting, is unlikely to fulfil this role, as it will be a household novelty rather than becoming a household necessity.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Prototyping

    Let's talk about rapid prototyping, something 3D printers have been doing for a long time. Are the new 3D printers enabling more of it and is it a catalyst for innovation?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Saves time, saves money

    Rapid prototyping is used to describe the process of turning a 3D CAD design into a tangible part. It's important for the mass manufacturing industries, which 3D printing can completely revolutionize. Time is money in these businesses, and with rapid prototyping, design flaws and mistakes can be caught early, fixed quickly, and the product can get to the market that much sooner. Of course, this all depends on how fast 3D printers can make the products (right now, they aren't very rapid). As the technology progresses, however, more materials can be used, and the process will only become faster and more advanced. Companies will be able to quickly produce what they need to, no matter if it's a replacement part or a full-scale product.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Novelty will wear off

    Rapid prototyping, the use of laser sintering to create one-off manufactured products, has been opened up as a possibility for SMBs to test their products due to new 3D printers -- or at least, the media and awareness now surrounding the technology. However, it is an old process and may not be a catalyst for innovation in a big way. For consumers, firms such as Shapeways allow them to print off their own products -- as expensive as it can be -- but this is a niche market and is unlikely to expand beyond enthusiasts and those who currently enjoy the novelty factor.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Who's taking advantage?

    We know that big companies have jumped on the 3D printing bandwagon. Which ones are using it in the most innovative ways and making the biggest impact?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Where do I start?

    General Electric made big investments in 3D printing in their quest to produce more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for the new Leap jet engines. The company also has a rapid prototyping center in Louisville and have big goals for 3D printing parts in the next few years. Boeing was one of the early adopters of 3D printing technology, and has made more than 20,000 3D printed parts for 10 different military and commercial planes. The 787 Dreamliner has 30 3D printed parts, including air ducts and hinges. Ford has been using 3D printing technology since the 80s and is currently manufacturing engine covers using 3D printers. Hasbro and Hershey have both teamed with 3D Systems for 3D printed toys and candy, which is very innovative looking into the future, though their impact is not obvious just yet. Nike is the first apparel brand to really jump on the bandwagon. For the 2014 Super Bowl, they 3D printed shoes for the players and said they plan to do much more with the technology in the near future.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Healthcare benefits most

    General Electric is using 3D printing to produce parts for jet engines, Boeing has created parts for a variety of planes, Hersey's is printing edible treats in different shapes and, in a darker fashion, Defense Distributed uses home 3D printers to create parts for guns.

    Weapons, food, houses and transport all can use the technology for products and to improve supply chains, but arguably healthcare is benefiting the most from recent interest in 3D printing. Light, cheap prosthetics and artificial bone printing are only two examples of how 3D printing is making healthcare more affordable, and if the technology is going to have serious impact in a market, I would argue that healthcare is the best bet.

    However, we have to keep in mind that 3D printing in vast amounts often hogs huge amounts of energy, and so may not be viable for smaller businesses and projects beyond prototypes and tiny batches.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Additive manufacturing

    Explain the term "additive manufacturing," how it relates to 3D printing, and why it is an important part of the innovation story.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Room to grow

    Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are often used interchangeably, but the former refers more to industrial-scale 3D printing. Companies like GE and Boeing refer to the 3D printing process as "additive manufacturing," meaning they are attempting to make products on a grander scale than a desktop printer could manage. It is a new version of manufacturing, and will revolutionize the way companies create their products for a mass market, so understanding this term is important in the story that will continue over the next few years as 3D printing in the industrial becomes faster, more durable, and ultimately, more realistic.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Testing the limits

    Additive manufacturing is the printing of layers of material to form a three-dimensional object. A design is fed through to a printer using CAD 3D software, which is then printed bottom-up, layer by layer, and can be built using a range of materials.

    This is one of the core technologies behind the 3D printing industry, as it removes the limitation of both dimension and materials in printing. This technology allows businesses to print one-off prototypes rather than commit to expensive production runs, reducing the time needed to get products suitable for market completed, and saving firms time and money.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The impact

    What's the potential impact of 3D printing for entrepreneurs, startups, and small businesses? Is it as revolutionary as the hype would have us believe? Why or why not?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Slashes expenses of smaller projects

    As this technology progresses, I think it will have a profound impact on small businesses. Take a browse through Kickstarter. More and more entrepreneurs are raising money for projects that involve 3D printing on some scale or another. Because small businesses and startups don't need to manufacture on a large scale, 3D printing products -- like signs, logos, replicas, etc. -- is an ideal situation for them. It also provides a lot more room for creativity when branding, creating, and most importantly, customizing for individuals, which is extremely important for startups and small businesses. I think this area is the most revolutionary, as it opens up so many doors for companies to diversify their products and services. It brings manufacturing to a local or regional scale as well, allowing companies to quickly produce and ship, therefore increasing their abilities and hopefully their profits.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Waiting for costs to drop

    3D printing is interesting, a novelty, and does have practical use in a variety of industries. The price of 3D printers is likely to drop further over time, and this could be a profit driver for enterprises. However, for startups and small businesses, the initial investment in purchasing kit, at least for now, is likely to be too high -- and it is a more financially viable alternative for small companies to outsource their 3D printing needs. This will save them money in the long run, but is not going to be a catalyst for a new breed of 3D printing-driven business plans.

    I would argue that 3D printing is not revolutionary, but can serve as an aid and valuable resource in industries spanning from healthcare to education and transport. However, high initial investments for kit and purchasing materials will make 3D printing most valuable for startups which focus solely on this technology, so they buy in bulk and secure contracts with companies looking to outsource their product needs.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Bioprinting

    How about bioprinting? How real is it and what do you predict will be the impact over the next 2-3 years?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's here now and exploding

    It's hard to believe, but bioprinting is one of the most progressive types of 3D printing. Organovo, a company that specifically focuses on bioprinting, is working on commercializing 3D printed liver tissue this year. They have also partnered with the National Eye Institute and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to print eye tissue. Scientists around the world have worked with pancreas tissue, kidney tissue, and heart tissue to create working human organs using fat cells and collagen. One doctor created a biodegradable windpipe splint for a young boy whose own wasn't strong enough. Another created a working jawbone for a woman who had hers crushed. Over the next few years, when more companies and hospitals start to work with 3D printers, I think we will see this space continue to grow at a rapid rate.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Research and ethics

    The printing of artificial bones using calcium phosphate is already achieved. Next, we're looking at cartilage. However, researchers across the globe have proposed printing organ cells, merging animal and human types to create stronger tissue, and potentially print entire organs in conjunction with stem cell technology in the future.

    As the technology is still within the fledgling stage, I believe research will continue along this path for the next few years, but ethical committees are likely to limit progress -- especially in terms of merging cell types and launching pilot projects.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    IP impact

    What do you see as the intellectual property hurdles with 3D printing? How big of a risk is there that IP battles could derail its progress?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Technology will win out

    The law hasn't yet caught up with 3D printing, and I don't think it will for quite some time. In the tech world today, we value open source (and of course, free) software that we can use at our leisure, share, and build upon. This maker communtiy surrounding websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways is becoming stronger each day as consumer 3D printing catches on. The main problems will arise with copyright issues of objects made by consumers and sold for profit. In order to tackle this, I think companies like Warner Bros. and Disney will have to get into the game themselves and offer 3D printed designs to compete with the variety of designs out there on the web right now. Many people foresee a lot of lawsuits, and I'm sure that IP issues will cause some big wars over ownership akin to those over music and movies. There is always a risk of it derailing progress, but as usual, technology is way ahead. Companies and individuals with issues over the 3D printing universe will have to adapt accordingly.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Lawyers waiting to pounce

    The majority of key patents surrounding additive manufacturing have either expired or come close to expiry, which gives the industry the push required to advance. According to Bits to Atoms founder & Shapeways 3D printing designer Duann Scott, patents filed that detail the laser sintering manufacturing process used in 3D printing -- which allow items to be sold on as finished products -- have now expired .

    While new patents will be filed as the industry evolves in the same manner as mobile technology, lawsuits will happen unless licensing agreements come in to play. Patent squabbles are part-and-parcel of the modern-day technology realm, and they are likely to crop up given the potential of the industry -- and this will eventually hamper progress. As big names become involved, this may also prevent smaller players from growing and competing if they cannot afford high licensing costs to use intellectual property.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Ethics

    What about the ethical issues surrounding 3D printing, especially bioprinting? Can we overcome?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Not an issue, yet

    Biporinting is interesting because in a way, it jumped the hurdle of the ethics debate over stem cells and whatever moral issues people have with them. Scientists are saying, we have the ability to easily do this, so why would we not? And it makes sense. However, there will definitely be some debates over ethics. Because 3D printing is so new, we aren't yet sure where these debates will lead. I'm sure there will be state-specific laws eventually, but for now, the research can grow at an quick rate because no one has really moved to stop it yet. The most amazing thing is, the issues we thought we had with long-term biology research projects and inventions may take a much shorter amount of time because of 3D printing. It really is a catalyst for growth in this space.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Objections may grow

    Guns spring to mind. If you release blueprints that allow anyone at home to print off parts for weaponry, then you raise both ethical and regulatory problems. In terms of bioprinting, as this research continues, the ethical debate will rage. In the same manner that full-face transplants are controversial -- but partial donated skin might be OK -- cloning research raises fears of chimeras and abortion prompts a stiff debate between rights and religion, there will always be a clash between ethics, belief systems and research. However, I think eventually these objections may abate, just as the use of cow and pig valves in heart operations is generally deemed acceptable. There will always be a slippery slope if you talk about using printing to combine cells from different species, but as we already use animal tissue to repair human conditions, it isn't too far from our imagination that hybrid cells could one day be used to treat medical problems.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Pioneers

    What do early movers 3D Systems and Stratasys have in the way of first mover advantages in the 3D printing market?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Defining the market

    3D Systems and Stratasys have bought many other companies, which primes them as worthy opponents to HP before it enters this world of 3D printing. For instance, Stratasys bought startup MakerBot, which is now one of the most popular brands of desktop 3D printers out there. 3D Systems has gained some more traction in the consumer space as well because of their partnerships with companies like Hershey and Hasbro. They want to reach the mass market before a company like HP makes its entrance. They are also trusted brands, who are on third and fourth generation machines. They are in the industrial space, which is extremely important to the growth of this sector, as well as the desktop 3D printer space, something that startups and established 2D printer companies don't have.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    Jump start

    A jump-start on everyone else. Just as Shapeways is one of the most well-known players in the consumer realm for individuals to print their own products, 3D Systems is focusing on creating home-based printers, and Stratasys is on an acquisition spree to cater for the enterprise market and business-based 3D printing requirements.

    By moving in to the 3D printing realm and establishing brand names and reputations before larger firms potentially get involved -- such as Amazon, HP and Google -- these firms have given themselves the chance to dominate the market and retain market share, leading innovation and shaping the industry itself in the same manner that Apple and Samsung dominate mobility.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    HP's impact

    Hewlett-Packard said it will bring a 3D printer to market in June with a focus on enterprises. What kind of ripple effect do you think HP's entry will have?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It will bring 3D printing mainstream

    HP is going to knock a lot of these smaller companies out of the water. They've been working on 3D printing technology for quite some time, and it's sure to be something that will have a massive effect on enterprises and consumers. In its current state, the 3D printing world is for technical hobbyists, mostly, so HP's entrance into the market will bring the technology to the average person, which is exciting. On the other hand, the competition and creativity of all these startup companies is exciting, and they will soon be nonexistent. I think time will tell if 3D Systems' partnerships with companies are strong enough to help them keep their foothold in the business, though HP will give them massive competition as a trusted brand.

    Lyndsey Gilpin

    I am for Revolution

    It will spur competition

    Despite a number of crowdfunding projects dedicated to the creation of cheap, at the moment, household 3D printers, their range, price and materials are limited. If a business wants to use 3D printing within its supply chain -- whether to create products more cheaply or to manufacture individual components -- unless they have thousands of dollars to spare to purchase their own kit, they are required to outsource to specialized companies.

    HP's entry in to the 3D printing market could result in the production of cheap printing units, but may also simply specialize in the production of ink or materials required to print. However, it is likely to spur on other companies to compete in the fledgling industry.

    While any movement in markets that spurs on competition and innovation are generally beneficial, 3D printing will still remain only a small part of these companies' businesses -- and have only limited use in the consumer sector.

    Charlie Osborne

    I am for Hype

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks for joining

    Our debaters were great and I hope you enjoyed their opinions. Coming up are closing statements from Lyndsey and Charlie on Wednesday and my verdict on Thursday. Please read the comments and add yours. And don't forget to vote. It's really close right now.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

Closing Statements

3D printing is here to stay

Lyndsey Gilpin

The world of 3D printing is exciting and it is progressing at an extremely fast pace. It's easy to get caught up in the hype, and it's important to remember that a lot of the 3D printers on the market right now will not last, as they are not viable enough to compete with big companies. There are a lot of conversations that will occur regarding ethical concerns, specifically about bioprinting and gun printing, and IP concerns will continue throughout the next few years. However, with companies like GE and Boeing betting their money on additive manufacturing already, and HP about to enter the market this year, it's apparent that 3D printing is here to stay in the manufacturing industry, the healthcare industry, and in the consumer and small enterprise spaces. It will not only supplement the processes  already in place, but also replace many traditional ones with new technology.

Valuable? Absolutely. Revolutionary? Sadly not.

Charlie Osborne

3D printing is valuable, not only to businesses which can benefit from the reduced costs of manufacturing products and creating prototypes in the design stage, but for consumers who may enjoy lower price points as a result. The technology has applications in healthcare, construction and manufacturing, but is unlikely to be suitable as a household product beyond small, novelty printers which may be fun to print out gifts or designs, but no more than that.

While valuable, 3D printing lacks the "revolutionary" label as it will remain in the manufacturing space for a long time to come, and unlike mobile devices -- which I would label "revolutionary" due to market spread and often low cost -- 3D printers require heavy investment for the kit, materials and maintenance -- making it unsuitable for the average home. The technology is within a 'hype' stage, but eventually will find its niche within manufacturing and supply chains, novelty products and in the creation of prosthetics in healthcare.

More demand than anyone anticipated

Jason Hiner

Few topics in the tech world are generating as much real buzz as 3D printing in 2014. While the media has been obsessed with wearable computing this year, readers on tech sites are showing far more interest in 3D printing. As one software engineer told me the other day, "This is the next big thing I want." 

Lyndsey explained the optimism that has captured the emerging 3D printing industry, while Charlie did a great job of bringing us back to reality on some of the overly-enthusiastic sentiments about 3D printing.
 
Ultimately, I think this argument comes down to how widespread the demand will be for 3D printers. Charlie (and many others like Autodesk CEO Carl Bass) have argued that they won't be household appliances. However, if you look at Micro 3D, the $299 Kickstarter project that raised over $1 million in 24 hours, it's clear that there's a lot more demand than anyone anticipated. 
 
For that reason, I'm going to side with the crowd on this one: Revolution.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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