Why 3D Printing Hasn’t Taken Off (Yet)

The 3D printing bubble has burst, according to Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski, who says that slow consumer take-up had forced a change in the company’s strategy.

At the turn of the decade, companies such as Makerbot started to produce small, affordable 3D printers which allowed consumers and small businesses to “print” objects and materials — in limited batches— from the comfort of their premises.

Along with these came a huge amount of expectation. These printers promised consumers an easy way to customise, update and repair appliances on their own, making it possible for example to recreate a component from a washing machine or car using schematics downloaded from the internet.

Autodesk bet big on the trend, developing software and acquiring companies who specialised in turning ideas and visions into designs that could be easily printed. However, Kowalski says that right now there’s a “gap” between the hype and the reality.

“There was certainly a bubble of expectation,” Kowalski says, speaking to journalists at a recent Q&A session. “We went through the traditional hype cycle.”

“It was really about expertise. There was a low skill barrier to entry but people quickly found that you get a low quality product as well.”

The company is focusing its efforts on opening the minds of industry, in the hope it will filter back to consumers, he says.

“Consumers prefer things pre-composed for us. They prefer to buy that end product instead of fiddle with each bit. It’s why we still go to restaurants instead of cooking for ourselves all the time.”

Kowalski believes a lot of our desires are heightened by science fiction, which in this case had us believe 3D printing was the way to make our thoughts, desires and dreams into a physical, tangible reality.

Having learned from this experience, the company is taking a more cautious approach to the next big thing: virtual reality.

While Autodesk is demonstrating the capabilities of the technology, it won’t actively push it, Kowalski says. It is simply looking for where the pull is occurring. Examples include the use of VR for safety and training in the construction industry or for designers to collaborate where there is “infinite real estate in screen space.”

“Where it’s adding something really different, sticky and valuable in our customers’ workflows”, Kowalski says.

Australia boasts a thriving virtual reality scene, with a number of start-ups betting their futures on the technology. In Sydney this includes Humense, NexInnov, Now VR, and Alta VR.

Academy Xi CEO Ben Wong agrees there is a lack of quality content, and said the take-up will be limited until the best technology becomes more affordable and accessible.

“From my experience anyone who has tried a Samsung gear VR is left with a brief moment of unsatisfied expectation,” Won says. “While people who experience Google’s tilt brush on the HTC Vive are blown away about the potential it holds and the imagination it stirs within their mind.”

“Part of the problem is that the technology needs to be more accessible: in the size of a Samsung Gear VR, but with technological latency and quality of a HTC or better. There is already progress happening as we speak. It’s just a matter of time till VR becomes ubiquitous. The technology just needs to catch up.”

While the price is dropping and the experience is improving, Autodesk’s Kowalksi says he hasn’t yet seen the “killer app.”

“There’s also [the threat of] physical fatigue — visual and mental fatigue — if we end up doing too much.”

The author travelled to Autodesk University in Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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