Hype, hype cycles and applying reason

Hype Cycle for 3D Printing, 2017 (image credit: Gartner)

Has the inflated hysteria and hype around 3D printing really been banished? The mainstream media’s obsession with 3D printing peaked around 2012-14, despite the efforts of industry veterans to push back. Reality seemed to bite, though, and things calmed down a great deal, even to the point of ‘negative hype.’

Recently however, a number of hyped headlines about 3D printing have crept back. Some are simply clickbait, but others are simply uninformed hype, backed by equally uninformed content. Both are irritating, but the latter is more insidious.

I have been using Twitter to take on some of the ridiculous 3D printing headlines that are proliferating across news sites and their social media channels once again.

We could simply ignore the problem, but experience and history show us that these headlines jeopardize the real progress of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) industry by raising expectations beyond the realms of reality. This, in turn, invariably leads to disappointment and ultimately increased cynicism and lower rates of adoption.

Dr Phil Reeves of Stratasys Expert Services made just this point at the recent International Conference on Additive Manufacturing & 3D Printing, citing how he believed that mainstream media hype 3-5 years ago damaged the AM industry. He said the promised ‘revolution’ was a misnomer. Dr Reeves’s presentation was centered around barriers to adoption, so his inclusion of the historically inflated press coverage of 3D printing was telling.

He pointed to the much more ‘conservative’ reality of today, where there are some truly great applications, but many more mundane yet business-boosting applications of AM across a plethora of industrial sectors.

At the same conference, it was both inspiring and sobering to witness the presentation of Pete Basiliere of analyst and research firm Gartner. This is the firm that developed and published the now famous Gartner Hype Cycle, which it defines as a ‘graphical depiction of a common pattern that arises with [a] new technology or other innovation.’

Basiliere said it was ‘actually more of a wave than a cycle.’ The parallels with today’s recurring hyped AM headlines are clear.

In a neat coincidence, however, Basiliere’s presentation coincided with the publication of the 2017 3D Printing Hype Cycle.

The 3D printing hype cycle identifies different sub-sectors of the 3D printing and AM industry and illustrates where Gartner believes they exist on the ‘cycle’ on their way to mainstream adoption. Gartner qualifies this within five time stages that run across the bottom of the graph, namely the:

  • Innovation trigger (including early R&D; first start-ups and VC funding; 1G products, early adopters);
  • Peak of inflated expectations (including mass media pick-ups and hype; supplier and funding proliferation; wider adoption, beginning of negative press coverage);
  • Trough of disillusionment (including supplier consolidation and failures; second and third round venture capital (VC) funding; and less than five percent potential adoption);
  • Slope of enlightenment (including development of methodologies and best practices; 3G products); and
  • Plateau of productivity (high growth adoption).

Scrutinizing the 2017 Gartner Hype Cycle, there is absolutely no surprise that ‘Consumer 3D printing’ is still sliding down into the trough of disillusionment. I suspect it will remain there longer than Gartner’s predicted 5-10 years.

There is no mention of the maker community, incidentally, so I wonder whether this prolific user group of desktop fused filament fabrication (FFF) machines fits into this category? This active and growing community group remains an underrated anomaly within the 3D printing industry.

Stereolithography traversing down into the same trough is a surprise. As the original additive process, and one that has been applied across many industry sectors, I really expected this to be well on its way up the enlightenment slope. But Gartner currently has it well behind material extrusion, material jetting and binder jetting.

Again, no surprise at all that 3D printing for prototyping has reached the plateau of productivity. I doubt anyone can seriously question that prototyping remains the 3D printing industry’s most widespread application, with correlating acceptance and increasing uptake.

In a nice little plot twist, 3D printing of hearing devices is the only category Gartner places ahead of prototyping. It’s a predominantly plastic production application, but even that is undergoing a transition—to metal.

To sum up, if you take nothing else away from this post, please just keep it real. The reality of the 3D printing and AM industry in 2017 is exciting—remaining challenges included. The hype doesn’t help anybody.

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.