On 3D printing: Give technology time to mature

I’ve been keeping a closer eye on TweetDeck in the past few weeks, as we’ve got a few trade shows coming up on our calendar. Our Grower Vertical team is heading to MANTS (Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show) in Baltimore next week, and Susan Burris from our Sage Construction and Real Estate team will be heading to the International Builder’s Show in Las Vegas the week after. And I’ll be heading up the road on Friday to Greensboro to check out the Green and Growin’ Show for the first time.

And, as it usually comes to pass, I saw a really interesting Tweet roll by that I just had to click on:

Dude! That is so cool!

I saw a 3D printer in action for the first time this past summer at Sage Summit in the Innovation Lab on the trade show floor. I didn’t get a chance to stop at that station to learn more about why Sage was presenting it, but I already knew the basics about 3D printing. And thanks to a quick run to Wikipedia, here’s a brief definition of 3D printing:

“3D printing is any of various processes to make a three-dimensional object. In 3D printing, additive processes are used, in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. These objects can be of almost any shape or geometry, and are produced from a 3D model or other electronic data source.”

3D printer at Sage Summit

The folks at Sage thought enough of 3D printing technology that they showcased it at the Innovation Lab at Sage Summit in July. (Big thanks to Greg Tirico and Andrew Chai from Sage for providing this picture for me!)

So that got me to thinking back to why Sage would present this technology at Sage Summit. First, Sage is the publisher of ERP software for manufacturing and distribution. 3D printing may impact the manufacturing industry in years to come, as seen by the speed in which one man with a printer produced the body of a lawnmower. Then I thought about how it could affect another focus of Sage, the construction industry: Imagine a tool breaking on a job site and being able to print out a new one in minutes inside the site trailer instead of having to drive to a store and purchase a new one. And down the road, could there a way to integrate the 3D printer and its software into enterprise systems such as Sage ERP or Sage CRE, maybe to automate what’s produced from the printer in terms of inventory, fixed assets, or raw materials?

So far, reaction to 3D printing is mixed. Those who see the the glass half-empty are focusing on the fact that 3D printers can’t do much right now, such as these commentaries from The Architectural Review and Gizmodo. Instead of outright denouncing 3D printing, both authors say people need to realize the technology isn’t ready to produce a finished manufactured product just yet. Even in the case of the lawnmower, Hans Fouche still needed to add an engine (which he recycled from an old mower), the blade, the handle, and the wheel shafts.

But that’s not uncommon for any new technology. What if we listened to people in the 1970s who said that punch-card computers that took up an entire room were a waste of time, effort and space? Or those who said the horseless carriage was just a passing fad? Or those who scoffed at the Wright brothers for having their heads in the clouds with their first airplane? All of these inventions evolved into the technology that we know and love today.

James May on a Benz Patent-Motorwagen

If people didn’t wait for technology to develop, we’d still be driving Benz Patent-Motorwagens like James May did on Top Gear UK a few years back.

Every new idea has to start somewhere. 3D printing technology is brand new, but some people expect it to be a Bugatti Veyron right out of the gate, instead of allowing it to grow from a Benz Patent-Motorwagen (which was the first automobile). But somehow, we’ve evolved into a Veruca Salt, “I Want It Now!” society. There’s already a link to how to buy your own personal 3D printer on the first page of a Google search!

I can just imagine an irate parent buying one for their (rather spoiled) child, ridiculing the product when they tried to produce a toy replica of their SUV. It reminds me of how some parents will rush out to buy a dalmatian every time a new version of “101 Dalmatians” hits the Silver Screen. They can’t for the life of them understand why their new dog, which they think is supposed to be friendly, healthy, and intelligent turns out to be mean, deaf, and dumb as a post. In both cases, they didn’t do their research before they ran out and made a snap decision.

3D Printing already in use today

The funny thing is that there are already solid uses for 3D printing being used today because there are some people who need function over form. On the same page about the lawnmower, I saw a link to an article about a South Korean 3D printing company that worked with the Seoul National School for the Blind to create a Touchable Yearbook for their students.

I clicked on it right away as this is a subject close to our hearts here at Practical Software Solutions. We’ve helped Industries of the Blind Greensboro install Sage 500 ERP to work in concert with their software for the visually impaired, which helps more of their employees do more jobs with less assistance from sighted people. Also, several of us are members of their local and state Lions clubs, which is a huge supporter of the visually impaired.

Many visually impaired people use their fingers as their eyes. By using their sensitive touch, they can “see” what a person looks like simply by stroking the features of a face. Now, instead of getting just a list of Braille names for their annual, these students can now receive actual reminders of what their friends looked like. And just like people with normal vision, they can bring their Touchable Yearbook to a reunion 20 years later and get to compare what classmates looked like then and now.

The beauty of all this? These models don’t need to be finished products to result in success. They don’t need to worry about matching the exact skin tones, clothing fabrics and patterns, or have true-to-life hair. The “blanks” that are easily produced by today’s technology can be the end result, and this is a great first step for 3D printing.

And, as I was writing this, Tim Lambert reminded me of another headline I saw recently: The folks at NASA and Made in Space e-mailed a socket wrench to the International Space Station back in November. An employee at Made in Space, the company that provided the ISS with its first 3D printer, overheard astronaut Barry Wilmore on the radio saying he needed a socket wrench. So after getting the design together, it was brought to NASA to be “e-mailed” up to the space station.

This wasn’t the first 3D object made in space (apparently there were 20 other objects created before this), but this was the first time an object was designed on Earth and sent to space electronically to be produced.

Again, this is was an occasion that a tool didn’t need to have a brand name on it or have a fancy blue handle in order to get the job done. All it had to do was work. And like my earlier example of a construction job site needing a tool, the astronauts didn’t have to wait months until the next SpaceX mission to bring them a wrench.

Just because new technology is in its infancy doesn’t mean that it’s a failure if it’s not fully developed within months of its first go-around. We may eventually see 3D printing as a revolution for manufacturing. But you’ve got to give it a chance first.

2 thoughts on “On 3D printing: Give technology time to mature

  1. Andrew

    We are only just at the beginnings of what is possible with personal computer controlled manufacture, just 30 years ago we saw Capt Kirk insert a square plastic device into a monitor and watch video events, now I have a box the size of a pack of cigarettes that can enable me to watch over 100 movies on an SD card or browse the net , on any tv. Solutions for 1000s of everyday problems are being thought up and carried out using 3D printers, even printed pizza! What might make your jaw drop one day will become part of everyday life the next.We are soon to have driverless cars in London….Who knows what will be the next Eureka moment!

    1. Amanda Tomaini Lamela Post author

      Hi Andrew … thanks for your comments. Those are excellent points! My go-to analogy is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” When you think about how Douglas Adams described the Guide in the book, he invented the internet, web browsers, and a tablet in a one-paragraph explanation in the late 1970s! (Well, really, earlier if you count the radio show that started before the books were published.)

      My greatest fear, as I said above, is that people are so willing to throw money at the latest and greatest inventions before they’re fully developed (Google Glass), that when they’re not absolutely perfect the first go-around, they’re considered a flop. That’s not good for innovation.


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