Reality Versus Hype: Analyzing the Innovation Hype Cycle on 3D Scanning and Printing

No offense to Gartner, but I believe their analysts have gotten it wrong in the assessment of 3D printing and 3D scanners included in their 2012 Hype Cycle infographic.

Gartner concludes that both 3D printing and scanning are 5-10 years away from their Plateau of Productivity, i.e., the time when mainstream production starts to take off. While it is certainly debatable at what point the democratization of 3D capture and production technologies will unlock mass customization and the concept of a “personal factory,” 3D printing and scanning tools are being used productively right now in a wide range of businesses. Of course, I know this since Geomagic is a key player in this space, and our software is used to support many production processes in conjunction with our various 3D scanning and printing partners. It’s not hype; it’s reality. In context, then, for many applications, 3D scanning and printing technologies are already at the Plateau of Productivity.

It’s easy for a research analyst, writer, blogger, industry pundit or other predictor of ominous events to throw cold water on innovation and creativity. But the question remains, how does hype transition to a market- and game-changing shift that impacts the way people live and work?

Belief plays a big part.

No one can predict the future. Sometimes you just have to believe. Yes, the belief should be tempered with a dose of reality, but we should (really) believe nevertheless. The world would be a much more boring place without the dreamers and innovators who regularly reject reality and substitute their own creativity, drive, hope and belief.

History is littered with innovators and innovations that wouldn’t fit neatly into a Hype Cycle curve and wouldn’t give way to the nearsighted individuals and companies blind to the changing world (and unable to adapt, pivot and embrace the change). Innovators and innovations fly in the face of market research, design panels and peer reviews. They believe when no one else does.

Here are a few history tidbits about inventions and innovators who shrugged in the face of doubt:

 “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Patent Office (1889)

  • Yet the pace of change and innovation has only accelerated in recent years.

“A horseless carriage, why in the world would anyone want one of those?”

  • Although drivers traveled trillions of miles by automobile in the US alone in 2011.
  • “Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes shine to the stars. Enthusiasm is the sparkle in your eyes, the swing in your gait. The grip of your hand, the irresistible surge of will and energy to execute your ideas.” – Henry Ford

“Orville and Wilbur, go back to building bikes; you are stupid.”

  • In 1895 Lord Kelvin added, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are not possible.”
  • Travelers have since flown billions of air miles annually, completely re-shaping economies and driving globalization.

“There is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas J. Watson, IBM Chairman (1943)

  • Intel’s Andy Grove added, “We were exposed to Apple’s early products, and I could not imagine anything except trivial applications for that.” When commenting on the rise of the personal computer, he thought it would only be good for storing recipes, the irony being that the PC would be the biggest consumer product, by far, for Intel. Click here for more information.
  • In the first quarter of 2012, 89 million worldwide PC shipments took place.

“What an incredibly stupid idea. Who is going to want to print things at home?”

  • HP and others are glad they didn’t listen to market pundits who said home printers would never be a big market. Later, considering the turn toward digital information, they predicted doom again. Why would people continue to print things?
  •  Turns out personal printing has continued to grow because, interestingly, even in the digital world, people like to print things, like photographs. I’d say that a couple billion personal printers sold over the years makes the category pretty successful.

“I can’t imagine that the benefits of digital cameras outweigh the benefits and quality of film.”

  • Kodak didn’t react quickly enough to consumer shift from film to digital camera solutions. Accordingly, they missed a huge market opportunity in favor of defending the company’s film consumables and processing business.
  • Kodak declared bankruptcy earlier this year, and the trustees have been selling its deep IP portfolio.
  • Turns out, Kodak actually invented their own nemesis: a digital camera prototype, back in 1975. But even pioneers can make mistakes. Kodak was used to making money on film not cameras. Click here for more information.

“You want to make a thing called an iPhone, what in the hell is that?”

  • What if Apple’s Board said to Steve Jobs, “Sorry, you are nuts, a creative genius, but nuts. No one believes there’s a market for an uncategorizable device that marketed as a phone (but really isn’t a very good one), has a camera, can store music, can run applications, etc. Oh, and by the way, Steve, why is this iPhone thing going to be any better than that turd of a device called the Newton?” Followed by something like, “And you want to over-invest in design and not use the cheapest materials, and you want to roll out an entirely new business model for music, and you are going to convince the music companies that downloads will work for them.”
  • Of course history has proven Steve Jobs right, propelling Apple to the highest market capitalization in the world, and the new iPhone 5 is already projected to be another record-shattering device.
  • Let’s not forget the same can be said for the iPad, but in that case others had (unsuccessfully) done it before.
  • “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs (May 1998, BusinessWeek)
  • “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” – Steve Jobs (November 1998, Fortune)

“The Wii has the worst graphics ever. It is simply not competitive with the existing gaming systems in the market.”

  • “Nintendo must be looking backward, thinking that history is going to repeat itself, over and over again. Sorry guys, the rest of us are looking for improvement. Hence why the other two 7th generation systems are so visually appealing with improved graphics and HD/Blu-Ray options. Colorful bubbly shaped characters are for little children and cartoons.” – From the www.wiisucks.com website.
  • Yet nearly 97 million Wii consoles have been sold through the middle of 2012.
  • The Wii was ultimately widely successful from its launch in late 2006, in spite of poor graphics, because of the entirely new and fresh way of interacting with games. It turned gaming into a truly social activity that spanned generations.

Sure, there are plenty of failures and examples that fit into a hype cycle. For example, you certainly wouldn’t want to be the Dutch tulip grower who, on April 26, 1637, paid “two wagon loads of wheat, four loads of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogheads of wine, four barrels of beer, two barrels of butter, 1000 pounds of cheese, a marriage bed with lines and a sizeable wagon” for one tulip bulb. Likewise, Betamax, despite being better technically, lost out to the VHS format. But even in the face of failure, I’ll bet the innovators, like the Betamax engineers at Sony, believed up to (and even past) the bitter end. I bet they still believe that theirs was better.

Sometimes explosive growth takes a convergence of technology and market acceptance. Sometimes price changes enable a new class of purchasers. Sometimes it is just blind luck. Sometimes the people promoting change just have to believe and convince others as well.

For those of you who know me, I am a fairly conservative guy in many areas. In a self-assessment I’d say my skill set is more in tune with execution rather than pure innovation.

light-shade-3d-print.pngI do believe, however, that we are at unique place in time, a time in which technology, market acceptance and demand are converging to catalyze change in the 3D capture and 3D printing space, carrying the space down-market from current industrial use cases. In the future, design professionals, students and children will be able to easily take innovation and inspiration from the real articles and objects that surround them, mash them up, and create entirely new designs along with a new creation and innovation cycle. What is needed is a simple-to-use, integrated end-to-end solution that allows people to easily capture, interact with, modify, manipulate and reproduce real-world 3D content. I believe we are not too far away.

(Image: 3D printed lamp shade. Credit: Materialise (http://www.flickr.com/photos/imaterialise/)

I was prroud to work at a company that is focused on this space and powered by a team of passionate, creative individuals. Ultimately, I could be proven wrong in my belief that the democratization of reality-capture technologies, interaction tools and 3D printing devices will shift the market and change our very lifestyles beyond the manufacturing ecosystem that already profitably leverages these technologies.

But even if I’m wrong, I’ll still believe.

You can read a shorter version of this post on the Materialise Blog at: http://i.materialise.com/blog/

[This blog was originally published on October 11th, 2012 – Gartner has subsequently published a revised Hype Cycle curve which separates and differentiates consumer 3D printing from enterprise use of 3D printing]

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