The 3D printing industry is fast-changing. Sometimes taking a step back, though, is necessary to grasp the bigger picture.
I’m just back in the office this week following four months focusing on markedly different priorities. While more than a few of my colleagues and contacts joked that they didn’t think I’d be able to stay away completely during my recent maternity leave, it turns out having an entirely dependent tiny human requires a great deal of attention that had previously been funneled into my work life. I unsubscribed from all but one of my industry newsletters (obviously, I remained subscribed to my daily Fabbaloo email) and turned off my email notifications on my phone.
From being ingrained in the trenches with a finger on nearly every major 3D printing pulse, I went dark. For four months, including some of the very busiest (my son was, in fact, born the week before Formnext 2019), I was off the additive manufacturing grid.
In an industry where sea change is the norm and massive advances can be turned around faster than ever before, being out of touch for a third of a year is significant. The prospect of coming back in cold was daunting.
Like any tech-heavy journalist in 2020, I laid a little groundwork: I crowdsourced some responses about what some significant happenings over the last 16 weeks were, turning to social media the week ahead of my return. Fortunately, I may have been gone but my accounts weren’t forgotten, and responses rolled in to my inquiries on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Some were to be expected: research continued, metal 3D printing on desktop 3D printers advanced toward further accessibility, new materials emerged, executive appointments and personnel shifts were announced.
What I hadn’t expected, though, was crickets: ‘There’s nothing major to report.’ ‘You didn’t miss much.’ ‘No new significant investments.’
Over half a decade of working in daily 3D printing news, I’ve seen the ebb and flow of the news cycle, riding the waves of the new and sometimes basking in the quieter in-betweens. One thing I’ve loved about this field is that a quiet day in 3D printing is a busy day in more traditional fields; there’s always something happening.
And, indeed, there absolutely has been, judging by the mini mountains in each of my 3D printing-related inboxes.
But a lot of the pure-PR updates found themselves quickly discarded; they were outdated before they were opened.
So what’s new in 3D printing that’s still relevant a month, two months, three months, later? That’s the sticking point. What happened that matters?
The big picture in 3D printing appears to be as it always has been: momentum.
The most important throughline in all the fulfilled expectations in responses was that all-important word “continued”. Research continued, progress continued, appointments continued to be made.
Perhaps the biggest foundations in 3D printing have already been laid, and so it can seem superficially that there’s “nothing new” because, from a purely new perspective, indeed there isn’t much. Most of the new 3D printer announcements I’ve read have been updates or tweaks to existing systems, or fulfilments of previously-introduced machines.
That, perhaps more than if there had been an avalanche of all-new introductions, indicates another important anchor in the “continued” pathway: realism. Reality.
3D printing is a very real industry, continuing (ah!) to dispel rumors of its demise on the consumer side and of its too-good-to-be-true premise on the industrial side.
Building upon a foundation is the only way to create a strong structure. For 3D printing to become a skyscraper in industry alongside traditional machining and other fabrication techniques, it needs that strong foundation and then the incremental brick-by-brick (or, more aptly, layer-by-layer) building up.
So what has staying out of 3D printing for a little bit shown me?
Stepping back to see the big picture before diving back into the daily minutiae is important for that overall perspective. And the view from back here shows a bright tapestry with more of its threads coming together.