Uses for 3D printing exist. Companies suck at finding them –


I see something curious happening. In personal conversations, I’ve heard people exclaim that there aren’t enough 3D printing apps. People argue that it’s this lack of use cases that’s holding the technology back. Worse still, some say 3D printing is of limited use.

Well, there are maybe only five things we can do with additive manufacturing (AM). Perhaps we have reached a certain limit? Maybe we should just resign ourselves to insignificance.

I’ve given a response to this in a more subtle form in other articles, but here I’ll be clearer:

  • 3D printing is not about technical specifications
  • 3D printing is about demonstrating value
  • “F” is for “finance”
  • Finding new apps is hard, and unlocking them is hard.
  • Deploying them in a company or in several companies is even more difficult
  • The apps themselves are a moving target
  • Many 3D printing applications remain to be discovered
  • You do it wrong

Now I’m going to break down each of these points to explain exactly what I mean.

3D printing is not about technical specifications

A 3D printed structure with ferroelectric properties. Image courtesy of PNAS.

Often 3D printing companies get stuck in specs. They’ll think a bigger printer can solve everything. Or they think if they qualify the aluminum, the customer will proceed. Companies get stuck in the weeds for years and months improving technical specs without realizing that’s not the problem. Of course, if we could make a piece in a second instead of a week, we would find more adopters. However, there are a lot of adopters out there, actually. We’re just not talking to the right people about the right things. Rather than just focusing on specifications, let’s focus on customer value or improving customer business.

3D printing is all about demonstrating its value

While companies are excited about 3D printing and keen to explore it, there is often no well-defined value assigned to the technology or any given AM project. To put it more cynically: for an additive agreement to make sense, there must be mutually perceived value. There is curiosity about the technology, but it is rarely a perceived concrete value that is recognized by both parties.

So we’re making a very expensive desk toy for someone. We pick the wrong part and everyone concludes that technology is fun, but not necessary. However, we know that once all hearing care professionals see that we can save them money while at a lower cost making a more comfortable product for their customers, we will wipe out the entire in-the-ear hearing aid industry. -auriculars in just a few years. Yet rarely do people demonstrate the value of the entire value chain or aggregate the benefits to move applications forward.

“F” is for “Finance”

We often talk to R&D, technology, manufacturing and business development teams to do our job. What we haven’t developed is the vocabulary and body of knowledge to make ourselves heard in a conversation with the CFO. They may want to listen if we can demonstrate to them that we can save them X million dollars; whether we can demonstrate that we can generate cash by manufacturing spare parts; or if we can quantify the effects of getting to market faster and how we can achieve this. We are too vague for finance people. We also don’t talk to our own finance people to try to figure out what may trigger finance department interest in the customer. We do not quantify or measure the cost savings, margin increases or other benefits we can provide.

Finding new apps is hard and unlocking them is hard.

A submarine hull

Finding new applications takes time, patience, experience and a working knowledge of 3D printing combined with versatile and creative minds. It also requires interdisciplinary teams working together, often including partnerships or agreements with other actors.

It’s not easy and it’s not something you can do in one term. It takes sustained effort, lots of exploration, lots of testing, and a methodical approach. It’s a hard set of skills to find in a single individual or team. It is also difficult for such a team to balance helping their entire organization, budget, relevance and management.

Once an app has been found, unlocking it, proving it works, and scaling it up is also very difficult. The transition to manufacturing is also difficult. Selling it internally, getting more budget, and associating here also makes it very complicated.

Deploying 3D printing applications is even more challenging.

The biggest thing holding 3D printing back is institutional resistance. Most of the time we will be sweeping with new ideas, tools, methods and concepts ready to sweep away whatever lies ahead. It tramples on established procedures, egos and power structures. Even worse, we disrupt people’s sleep at night and their KPIs. Often we try to introduce a new way of working to someone who does not benefit from this change in any way.

Skepticism often can’t really be tapped because we simply don’t have a track record. The collision with complex decision-making units and this institutional resistance is what is holding back 3D printing implementations. Often there is little empathy for ‘sticks in the mud’ which means people are unable to work with stakeholders to deploy the technology. Instead, they dig themselves into foxholes to combat institutional resistance without allaying any fears or eliminating the root causes. We have not yet developed proven and reliable ways to improve this problem.

The apps themselves are a moving target

We know apps are a moving target, but we don’t really appreciate it. We know 3D printing is a slow-moving technology, but we’re getting better. Often, I see companies hitting the bull’s eye. In scattered brainstorming, people are trying to find that goose that lays the golden egg. But they don’t systematically look at material and machine costs and parts costs comparatively. People don’t revisit old initiatives when technology advances.

We don’t do detailed comparisons by which we keep track of why things work and what part size or quality works, and what doesn’t. We’re just chasing the chimera and maybe copying and pasting an Excel table into the Power Point.

We are not methodical. It’s relevant because, if you map things out, you can see that, for example, if we can cut prices by 50%, we can suddenly 3D print a million oil and gas valve bodies.

The 3D printed RF filter designed by Airbus Defense and Space integrated into the satellite payload.  The new filter reduces weight by 50% compared to the previous design.

The 3D printed RF filter designed by Airbus Defense and Space integrated into the satellite payload. The new filter reduces weight by 50% compared to the previous design.

This means we have to revisit old assumptions, be more methodical in our approaches. However, it also means that maybe we should try reversing horse and cart for once. The correct approach may simply be, “If we can reach price X, would you order 10,000?”

It will only work if you can align the other entities in the value chain and get them to rally around a common proposition. Many people think of this the British Airways way: “Given the current economy of my market, what parts can be magically made?” Very few look at the situation like easyJet or Southwest Airlines, where a different accounting, a different way of looking at the situation could lead to a whole new way of looking at your business.

There are still many 3D printing applications to discover

Green part of a 3D printed filter tube (left) and corresponding filter tube after the sintering process (right). Glass microstructures are suitable for sterilization and are generally biocompatible, making GP-Silica impression material a good choice for life science applications.

A good friend once pointed out to me the incredible degree of strategic replication that companies pursue in the 3D printing industry. It completely changed my way of thinking.

Often, it really feels like orthopedics, aviation, space and automotive are THIS. We’re all talking to the same 100 people in the same industries and they’re bored. You can’t advance because you’re the fifteenth person trying to break into Toyota with the same ideas and the same economy. And they always want to pay $1 for something we can do for $10.

So few people are looking at new ideas and new industries. We need to talk to new people, with new ideas and new components. We don’t use our own technology to create one-size-fits-all solutions to new problems. Instead, we all drive around the same corral trying to catch the same cows with the same tricks. In other words: it’s like surfing the World Wide Web and concluding that Yahoo! and the physics department websites were already a done deal and concluded that the internet would go no further than this point.

This is absurd given how many coin-like problems and solutions exist. Wherever a unique texture, internal texture, geometry or property solves a significant problem, we will find value for customers. Some problems may be one-time, some high-margin slots, and some a series of parts and solutions. We shouldn’t have to scale everything, because the fact that we don’t have to scale is a key benefit of our technology. So, millions of coins shouldn’t be on your mind all the time. The right solution at the right price should be on your mind.

You do it wrong

Here is a little hot bath at the end of this article. You are doing it wrong. Not only are you doing it wrong, everyone is doing it too. No one has figured it out yet. Nobody knows what the right methodologies are, how to implement things, how to grow these businesses. Nobody can do that well. What’s worse than getting lost in the herd trying to be like everyone else? Getting lost in a herd that doesn’t know where it’s going. Nobody knows. Think clearly, persist, be methodical and creative, and maybe you could be one of the few who gets it.


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