Having Trouble Predicting the Future of 3D Printing? So are the Experts

There is a lot of hype currently surrounding the potential future of additive manufacturing, or as it’s more commonly referred, 3D printing. Everyday objects few thought could ever be created outside of traditional subtractive manufacturing methods such as automobiles and airplanes have been built using 3D printers. As impressive as the mere creation of these products seemed to most, they received a much higher level of fanfare after actually successfully completing their initial trials. In addition, the development of other, much less ordinary objects are underway and point to a time when items such as prescription drugs, viruses, robots, and even human skin, will all be created using a 3D printer. But what does this mean for the future of the industry in the next 5 years? According to available news sources, if one were to ask ten different experts, one would likely receive ten different answers.

On one end of the spectrum are those individuals who anticipate a 3D printing explosion in the next 5 years. During this time, this group believes 3D printing will transition from an emerging technology to a disruptive one. Experts in this camp foresee a world in the very near future in which 3D printers are in every household, school, office, and retail location and will enable users to instantly create objects on a whim. Processes that were once thought of as merely science fiction, such as the printing human organs, consumable food, and complex information technology hardware, will also become a reality. In addition, these experts believe that advancements in the related 3D printing technologies will greatly increase the overall strength of the objects created; further dispersing its use to both companies and individuals.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum are those that foresee the full adoption of 3D printing taking much longer. These experts tend to highlight current limitations of the technology, such as its relative complexity for the non-expert, expense compared to traditional methods of manufacturing, limited applications (ie. small library of files that can currently be printed), and unresolved legal hurdles as reasons why it will take much longer for its global adoption. They also contend that, unlike other technologies that were somewhat rapidly adopted, there is limited demand for 3D printing on the individual level with most current users being labeled as hobbyists or tinkerers. Experts with this perspective tend to put the time-frame for widespread acceptance and usage out at least 20 years.

If recognized industry experts can’t seem to agree on the future trajectory of 3D printing, how can those that we entrust with the development of appropriate laws and policies that are not subject matter experts be expected to fully comprehend the implications of such a technology? How can we as engaged citizens in an ever increasing global society, take the necessary measures to both maximize the benefits of the technology and protect ourselves from those that seek to abuse it?