April 1, 2018
A common sense approach to solving big problems is to divide them into smaller, more manageable components. For instance, I remember my daughters intuitively dividing puzzle pieces by color, like engineers building subassemblies, to finish the bigger task. Of course, when the problem is especially large, the subassemblies can become their own puzzles. As complexity grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to put everything together.
Still, we’ve become pretty good at creating solutions when we can see the finished product—whether it’s putting 1,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces together to match the picture on the box or putting 30,000 parts together to form an automobile. When we know the final outcome and can all work toward the same goal, the divide-and-conquer method of problem solving works well.
But when it comes to implementing a new technology, the old “solution in search of a problem” maxim has a ring of truth. In many cases, it’s not that there is no problem to be solved, it’s that there are a mind-boggling number of problems that could potentially be solved.
The Value of Vision
Take 3D printing, for example. The decades-old invention had advanced enough five years ago that it was being hailed as a technology that would change the world. Changing the world certainly qualifies as a big puzzle to solve, so big that it was broken up into a myriad of smaller problems—but there was no agreement on what the big picture on the “Change the World” puzzle box looked like.
Many entrepreneurs had visions of a 3D printer in every home, and set off to solve that problem. Some discrete manufacturers saw mass customization driving the factories of the future. Supply chain experts focused on replacing costly inventories and centralized manufacturing with an on-demand, distributed model. Economists worried over the effects of freely downloadable or 3D-scanned products becoming real. Mechanical engineers saw organic, lightweight parts that couldn’t be made before. Electronics engineers imagined 3D-printing their own circuit boards. Medical professionals envisioned more affordable, custom prosthetics and implants. Architects saw 3D-printed buildings, chefs saw 3D-printed foods, fashion designers saw 3D-printed clothes, and on and on.
What we now look back on as the height of hype surrounding 3D printing were not flights of fancy that had no chance of becoming reality. Some of the puzzles were just missing pieces—important pieces like technical know-how, material choices, more advanced hardware, better design tools and government approvals. There weren’t enough educators, material scientists, equipment and software makers, or government regulators to fill in those missing pieces for every puzzle. The near-endless possibilities of 3D printing/additive manufacturing diffused implementation efforts, slowing progress.
Bringing the Pictures into Focus
Now those pieces are being assembled, thanks to 3D printing hardware and software vendors working together, a focus on industrial use cases, increased training on how to design for additive manufacturing and more material options. However, if the impressive market predictions for the near future of 3D printing are to come true, there is much more work still to be done. Other technologies are emerging that need to be incorporated into the big picture of 3D printing.
In just the past few years, we’ve seen how important robotics and vision systems will be to the future of 3D printing. Automating the loading and application of materials, part removal, post-processing and inspection will all continue to advance mass customization in industrial additive manufacturing. Already, generative design software has resulted in lighter weight, organic-like 3D-printed parts in the field, while artificial intelligence promises to suggest even more innovative designs. It no longer seems far-fetched to imagine connected machines monitoring part wear and predictively ordering their own 3D-printed replacement parts.
There is a lot to learn from the rise and fall and rise of 3D printing. One technology won’t change the world, but it’s a growing part of the puzzle for people with the right vision.