You may have noticed that industrial 3D printing projects seem to perennially be delayed. Desktop 3D printers also always suck, initially. New designs for systems are finicky and underperform no matter how experienced the team making them. Some very big companies have bungled 3D printer launches due to hubris. Large firms wanting to industrialize 3D printing for products have taken years more than they thought they would. Material vendors have doubled their budgets on trying to get polymers made into powder bed fusion powders. Experienced metal firms have failed to make a useful powder, as well.
A lot of the smartest people in the room have ended up with egg on their face thanks to 3D printing. Why is that really? Why do people perennially fail to make 3D printing work for them? And why do so many 3D printing projects take much longer than expected?
Mass Manufacturing Is Awesome
We don’t say this enough: mass manufacturing is awesome. There are tons of standards; all of the materials and properties are characterized; there’s oodles of information available about everything. Lots of best practices are widespread and you can find countless people to do any of the work that you would need done.
Mass manufacturing just works. For loads of materials and in lots of cases. Mass manufacturing is like a Porsche 911 evolving over the decades into an ever more refined product. We are not a Porsche 911. We are more of a beach buggy that your uncle hacked together over beers and under sunshine in a few weekends. There are no standards, precious few manuals, and almost nothing works. Everything is held together by hope and duck tape.
Here’s another metaphor: We are a horde of first graders given two cans of Red Bull each and let into a pachinko parlor. The mass manufacturing people are like deftly moving piano tuners who, through ear and experience, tweak the already good. We are bailing out a sinking boat as we design and build it.
In mass manufacturing you have tribes of experienced people who have been doing things in a certain way for a long time. Good, well trained individuals with mortgages and kids and dogs and order in their lives.
We do not have a lot of experienced workers. There are very few people who have been working in 3D printing for more than five years. There are only a thousand or so that have been in this industry for a decade or more and still work in it. And, you know what? Most of us have no idea what we’re doing. It’s chaos all the time.
So, we’re learning, but you may not be. We do teach and train and help others, but maybe not if you’re not in my tribe or not paying me. So, the collective learning thing is more limited than in other industries.
3D Printing Knowledge Is Not Shared
In 3D printing a lot of best practice, knowledge and procedure is not shared. A lot of people in this industry have mastered very specific magic tricks from nesting files to performing manufacturing to developing applications.
And, yes, there are MIT courses and trainings and lots that you can do to learn. But, a lot of the stuff is proprietary to one company. A lot of services and manufacturing firms have their completely unique ways of doing things as well and these practices are not shared. A lot of information is trade secret or tied to parts that we’re not allowed to talk about. And a lot of people don’t share a lot of knowledge because they believe that this unique collection of factoids is what’s keeping them employed.
3D Printing Is Hard
I’ve said this before, but 3D printing is a number of different feedback loops, technologies, sciences, engineering disciplines all interacting in one box. And the different forces in that box are not all understood by all of the people on the team. There are always going to be factors in settings, software, firmware, or physics that will be unknown, as well.
We Make Each Object in a Unique Way
We build each and every 3D printed object uniquely with a unique tool path and unique characteristics, depending on how and when the material is hardened where on the bed and in what orientation. All 3D printed objects can be unique and this is wonderful. All 3D printed objects are unique and this sucks.
Good Bakers Aren’t Good Surgeons
Just because you’re a good baker doesn’t mean that you’re a good surgeon. Many companies tend to be rather overconfident about themselves. They seem to think that they know what they know. They also seem to think that, because they’re good at one thing, they will be good at new things. There are a number of collective cognitive biases that could be at play here, but the one main one that I think is relevant is the baker/surgeon analogy.
Bakers have to work hard, work clean, be diligent and, in many cases, have to be a mix of both precise and creative. There’s a lot of repetition and procedure in baking and a lot of variables can change outcomes. Now, I would contend that, if we were looking to retrain people of certain professions to be surgeons, then bakers would make excellent candidates.
But, I think that no baker would be happy to walk into a hospital tomorrow and operate on their first patient. Without the training, knowledge, mistakes made, and experience, they just wouldn’t be ready. No matter how much innate surgical ability or adjacent skill, they just would not be able to do this. And I think we’d all be able to understand that even though you may think you’d make a good surgeon and you think that you could do it; you’d need a lot of training in order to do it.
Not so when companies begin contemplating 3D printing. Firms always conclude because they can make windmills when they can make aircraft. C-level execs will always think that, because they can run the 100 meters, they can also do rhythmic gymnastics. Yes, there is hubris and a lack of knowledge, but more importantly, just because you’re a good baker doesn’t mean that you’re a good surgeon. It takes time to learn and master a new technology.