Gartner’s Jackie Fenn on 3D Printing

Fabbaloo interviewed Gartner Analyst Jackie Fenn, VP and Gartner Fellow covering Emerging Trends. Jackie writes on a variety of new technologies and approaches, one of which has been 3D printing. 
Jackie is the originator of Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle, which proposes that every technology follows a consistent pattern of interest through its lifecycle. Jackie’s team tracks various technologies by placing them on the Hype Cycle. You can listen to Jackie explain how it works right here
Let’s find out what Gartner thinks of our favorite technology:
How long has Gartner had their eye on 3D Printing?
Our manufacturing analysts have been watching the area of rapid prototyping technology for many years, of course, but we noticed something was changing after seeing a couple of 3D printers at the 2006 SIGGRAPH exhibition. The price points and small-business appeal were radically different from what had gone before. At that time we said in a report that “the quality has increased, and the cost has decreased to the level that is likely to broaden its appeal within five years”, which was probably about right.
Which commercial vendors does Gartner follow? Does Gartner follow the open source projects and inexpensive kit manufacturers?
We are keeping our eye on the various techniques and vendors, including open source and initiatives like RepRap that aims to build a machine that can print its own parts to replicate itself (remind me to hire Schwarzenegger as a bodyguard once they get that one working).
Does Gartner still view 3D Printing as an emerging technology? What would transform 3D Printing into a mainstream technology? How do you see Gartner’s coverage of this area evolving over the next few years? 
We are still featuring it as an emerging technology due to the general lack of awareness about its capabilities and its potential. However most of the detailed coverage is happening out of our printing practice area, by my colleague Pete Basiliere. We expect that coverage to grow over time as more of our clients become interested in what it can do for them and how to integrate it into their IT and business processes.
We’ve observed many unique innovative uses of 3D printing in recent months, including a variety of medical, industrial and artistic applications. Where do you anticipate seeing future opportunities for innovation? 
The potential is limitless – just about every client I explain the technology to starts brainstorming on what they could do with it. A couple of the most common themes seem to be aesthetic modeling and medical/dental.
Who should be buying a 3D printer today, and who should be using 3D print services?
Buying a 3D printer would make sense for small (or even large) business who sell short run/one-off models or who make money off their designs (like architects). But I can see a growing number of hobbyists being interested in buying. The key factor is how much time you want to invest in learning how the machine works and how to use 3D modeling languages. 
Is the futuristic vision of average consumers printing their own items really going to happen? Or will home usage forever remain a niche activity? What missing elements are required to truly break open the 3D printing space to the general public? Is it simply a matter of awareness or education, or are there technical challenges to overcome? 
I can imagine that the ability to download a design and print it at home will be available within 10 years at a price point that is suitable for early mainstream consumers. It may become the “must-have” holiday present at some point during that time frame. I can also imagine that there will be easy-to use software that allows kids to tweak the designs to create an infinite number of small plastic toys (help!). For the technology to become mainstream we’ll also need an IP ecosystem for the designs that people will buy, download and modify. This probably won’t happen until after an initial period of confusion and free-for-all, as happened with music. Real maturity will need an iTunes equivalent (iPrint? iDesign?) 
Let’s advance the calendar to 2015. What should we expect to see in the 3D printing space that’s different from today?
In five years I think that the printers themselves will be cheap enough that many people could buy them, but that the design software will still be a little tricky for many users. So it will still be mainly businesses of all sizes, hobbyists and early adopters. This is definitely one of those areas where Paul Saffo’s comment applies – that people tend to overestimate the speed that a new technology will arrive, but underestimate the long term impact.
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