The Self-Delusion of Tech Entrepreneurs

19 Jan, 2017 | BusinessScience And TechnologyTechTdp

Before we start, let's just say that I am far from perfect at predicting what will be a hit or a miss when it comes to new technologies. But it appears I'm better at it than some of the professionals and a lot of the press. William Goldman's statement on the film industry rings true across a great many.

Nobody knows anything.

-- William Goldman

I say this in response to an article from Backchannel that runs through the history of MakerBot, the company synonymous with 3D printing. Although I could have been pushed to write this article by the announcements from this year's CES.

Do we really need cameras in our fridges? How about vibrating jeans to tell us which way to turn? A smart hair brush? What about a Bluetooth enabled toaster? Does your toothbrush need AI? Surely you don't need an app-enabled duvet that 'makes your bed'?

If you own or work at a company that produces such items I suggest you quit right now. Then perhaps turn your attention to an actual real world problem that could do with solving. I'm sure your skills will be greatly appreciated, serve a much better purpose and improve lives.

The Blind Vision

Back to the original point: MakerBot and 3D printers. This is a company that was bought, at one point, for $403 million. That was after a decent amount of venture funding. I'd just like to pull a couple of quotes out of the article:

This machine will change the world.

It won't be long before having a MakerBot in your home is as common as having a microwave!

The article goes on the describe how MakerBot and other 3D printer companies began to struggle and some ceased trading.

The article itself gives a big reason why 3D printing is still a tiny fraction of industrial output and why it's likely to remain so, probably forever:

But 3D printing technology still isn’t reliable enough, fast enough, or cheap enough to supplant injection molding or traditional, subtractive manufacturing processes.

The key part, for me, is this:

The plan among MakerBot and 3D systems and others, creating this idea, an illusion, of your average consumer owning one or more of these machines for home use — there’s just not a market for those...

The question is, why the hell did anyone ever think there was and why did no one call bullshit sooner?

The Issues with 3D Printers

If you've ever seen a 3D printer, you'll know they're pretty big. Although likened to a desktop printer, you'd need a pretty big desk to put one on. Even the smallest ones are far larger than a normal printer.

So, if for no other reason than size you have a limited market, because you need a big space even to house one and how many people do you know with that amount of room they want to dedicate to an esoteric device?

Then you have the cost. The article mentions MakerBot's desire to hit the $499 price point, which they didn't do as far as I can see (not until too late at any rate). Other manufacturers did, but that's still a very high price to pay for a non-essential appliance. Most people buy printers for $50-100, and they're far more likely to print text on paper than a 3D model.

What about the usefulness? I've seen a few examples of 3D printing, but nothing where it's an essential element, nothing where someone was banging out designs on a regular basis.

This limitation is in part down to the materials available. There's only one: plastic. There are a few different types, but that still greatly limits what you can make. There are printers that can use other materials, such as metal, but they're limited to industrial machines currently. There's even a limit on the number of colours you can use in a design.

Size is also a limiting factor. Despite being pretty big boxes, their print area is actually relatively small, which reduces the number of designs you can produce. Anything beyond 300mm (1 foot) isn't going to be possible.

Speed is another consideration. If you print a document you may wait a few seconds for it to appear, if it's a large file you may wait minutes. For any 3D print it'll likely be measured in hours. That makes it tough to churn out designs en masse and creates a barrier, even if only mentally, to whipping something up.

Then you have the technical difficulties. To print a page of text you just need a word processor and to then hit a button, the software takes care of the rest. We've all found ourselves with a print that didn't look like we wanted and have had to tweak settings. Producing files for 3D printing is much more difficult and the consequences of small errors both much greater and, due to print speed, much slower to resolve.

Lastly there's the problem it solves. How many times has the average person found themselves in need of a small plastic component? Rarely. How many that needed it so urgently they couldn't order the part online or visit a store? Even fewer. There simply isn't the demand for this device. I doubt there ever will be.

The Future of 3D Printing

It's not all doom and gloom for 3D printers. As mentioned in the article, the main buyers of 3D printers now are businesses and schools. Not a massive surprise. They suit those environments because they have the space, because the cost can be shared over a large group of users and those numbers mean the utilisation will be greater.

They also have a reason to want one-off, bespoke designs, which is something 3D printers excel at. They make sense in remote locations too (like the International Space Station), where you can't easily pick up replacements or keep a store of spare parts.

The strength of 3D printers is their ability to produce a very customised design, so uses around personalisation will abound, as we're seeing with prosthetics. Maybe custom jewelry will be an option, glasses manufacture, or fashion accessories. I don't see them replacing mass-manufacture though.

That was always the market for 3D printers, so how come no one spotted that and shot down the dumb claims? How come the founders were able to fool themselves into believing their vision was shared?

That I can't answer, but it goes to show we all need to learn to look past the hype and ask ourselves honestly what function an invention serves for average people and whether the perceived market actually exists with a simple taste test.