In the classic business book, "The Innovator's Dilemma", author Clayton M. Christensen describes a scenario which happens all to often in large companies:
- Inventive staff come up with a new way to produce the product
- Management is not interested in backing the new way because even if it succeeded, the amount of revenue is a pittance compared to the existing revenues
- The new idea is shelved
- The inventive staff leave and do it themselves in a smaller startup company
- The smaller company can double, triple or more in size easily because it's so small
- The new approach, while initially useful only for a small niche of business, is gradually improved over a long period of time
- Eventually, the new technology surpasses the old technology and the original company falls
A long tale, but quite typical. Christensen shows how this exact sequence occurred as hydraulic diggers overcame steam shovels in the mid-20th century, and later how this pattern of disruptive technology repeated with generations of hard disk storage.
We're thinking about 3D printing as a manufacturing technique. Today it's useful only in particular niches. But it's gradually getting more capable, as we have a world full of inventive folks trying every possibility, keeping those that work, and eliminating those that fail.
Perhaps we're seeing The Innovator's Dilemma in action right now. If we stretch our imagination to the far future, could 3D printing approaches overcome traditional manufacturing? Could our factories of the future be extremely advanced versions of the kits and printers we use today?