It all started with a Saab cup holder.
I happen to own a 2004 model, a family car with a turbo (don't ask). Way back in December, before everyone started wondering if 3-D printing was on the deadpool, I tested out a MakerBot Replicator Mini for a few weeks. It was a heady time printing out Darth Vadar replicas from Thingiverse and experimenting with my own concoctions. Then, I tried to print something I actually needed, something that would save me a few hundred dollars or a trip to the junkyard.
As my dad used to say, that's when I noticed there was trouble with a capital T.
As recently as May 2015, 3-D printing was championed as a savior of all things. Last Friday, Newsweek magazine finally broke the ice. Maybe that should be: It shattered the ice, squished it into the ground, and sprayed it off the showroom floor with a hose. MakerBot recently whittled down its work force and the stock price of parent company Stratasys has plummeted. It's like someone sucked all of the momentum out of the maker industry and pulled the plug, then bought a new plastic plug at Walmart.
What happened? I often think of that Saab part as a good model of what went wrong. (By the way, I promise not to use any metaphors for 3-D printing from now on.) For starters, I really wanted to print the cup holder. I even asked a well-known Thingiverse designer for help, and was going to pay him, but he said the part was too complex. Wait, what? Too complex for a well-known designer? He even used the word "hassle" in his email back to me. The part is not something you'd use on a NASA spaceship. It does have a spring attached to two pieces of plastic that fold together.
What about a water bottle cage for my bike? Shouldn't be a big problem. There are plenty of designs. But when I actually printed one of them, it broke on my first ride. Also, a much more important piece of data: A water bottle cage costs about $4 at Amazon.com but even a relatively short spool of filament costs $65. The math doesn't compute. And, it doesn't make sense to spend the time.
From that experience, I knew something was wrong. As the Newsweek article notes, you can print only so many Yoda heads before you wonder why you bought the device. A 3-D printer won't magically terraform anything right before your eyes, and it even has problems with slightly complex car parts. I even remember my nephew, who is working as an intern for me this year, saying the industry needs to figure out this problem. It's fun for a while, but eventually you realize you need to do something practical after paying almost $1,000 for the product.
I believe there's a few lessons for anyone following trends. Here they are.
1. Make sure you try it yourself.
One of the main reason 3-D printing was mostly about the hype was due to the fact that many of the people writing about the field had never actually printed anything. Ironically, it's because it's so complex. I'll admit that it took me a few days to print out my first Darth Vadar toy, especially since there's some trickery with how you connect your laptop over Wi-Fi to even make your first Yoda head. And, when I printed out a Ford Mustang, it took me a few tries before the final model looked anything like the car I remember from my youth. Even then, it had one tire that looked flat. This did not turn me into a superfan. I'm still optimistic and love the idea of local manufacturing and the market is still ripe. I stand by this feature in Inc. magazine. But I'm not exactly on the fast train anymore. It's more like I'm on the bandwagon, bouncing along over rough terrain and mindful of how slow a bandwagon usually goes.
2. Ask hard questions.
3-D printing isn't totally dead, but it was always a little suspect. Even in the early days, I remember asking questions about the cost of materials, the practical applications for small business, and why anyone would ever want to print their food or in chocolate. Some of the answers were acceptable, some were more like the wizard behind the curtain pulling a lever and hoping you don't notice. If you were paying attention to what people said about 3-D printing back in 2014, you know it was always speculative. The official Gartner prediction was that the 34,010 printers sold in 2012 would somehow turn into 2.1 million units sold by 2018. That is not going to happen. It's really hard to sell a product that barely even exists anymore.
3. Talk to the outsiders.
This is the toughest one for me, because when you want to find out about a trend, the default approach is to look for people who are insiders. Analysts, designers, 3-D printing companies, and makers all had wonderful things to say about 3-D printing in 2014. I remember talking to a Ford spokesperson way back in 2012 or 2013 during a plant tour when he showed me the multimillion-dollar prototyping machines they use to make actual car parts. He was an outsider. I still remember the look he gave me when I asked about 3-D printing. It wasn't derision. It was more like he was challenging me to look around. They were using multimillion-dollar prototyping machines that make actual car parts. They had dozens of people working in that department. That spokesperson likely had the best viewpoint on consumer-level 3-D printing. His view was "wait and see" and that's still true. At the time, I doubt Ford was ready to install a bunch of MakerBot machines that would help it make the parts for the next Fusion. It was a burgeoning industry and still is. That's the only way to view it.
4. Do the math.
I mentioned the water-bottle cage. One huge lesson about any new trend is you need to get out a calculator and do the math. 3-D printing used the "razor and razor blade" approach to building an industry. Ask anyone who has decided to put a 3-D printer in a back closet about the one thing that ruined the experience and you will hear about the expenses. You have to add up the costs of a new product and the materials and compare that to your current process. Is making a plug cheaper than buying one at Walmart? That can be difficult, but maybe the math will reveal something. I see this same problem with virtual reality headsets. You can make one out of cardboard or you can pay $799 for the HTC Vive. Someone needs to do some of the math here. What do the games cost? What do the parts cost? How rewarding is the experience compared to what you can do if you go to Best Buy for five minutes? How many companies are making the games? Before you jump on any bandwagon, it's best to take a close look at the seating, the wheels, and the bumps in the road.