3D Printing had a moment in the consciousness of consumers and venture investors alike across the early part of the decade. But the attention and excitement heaped on this category seems to have waned within the venture marketing the last few years, while large public players like HP have methodically announced their own long-awaited initiatives. Perhaps it was the early sale of Makerbot, in 2013, that marked the peak of this initial portion of the cycle, or the collective realization by so many hobbyists that the technology, while inspiring, still had a way to go before it would be truly accessible and useful for more than novelty applications.
There’s no cause for alarm, however – this is classic Hype Cycle stuff. Mass publicity and zealous early adopter testimonials carried us, as expected, to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” Then, when early experiments revealed the distance the technology still had to go and the first generation companies exited before they could change the world, the category settled into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” It’s a path that we’ve seen so many equally transformative technologies follow (see, the Internet).
But, for anyone who’s spent time looking under the surface in this space, it’s as clear as ever that there is still tremendous innovation taking place around 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing. This is true for hardware, as well as software and services, as the entire value chain within this category continues to mature. And so too it is evident that these technologies will have a transformative impact on the way we design and produce the goods of the future. With the above early lessons under the industry’s collective belt, it feels like now is the time when this area of innovation will truly come into its own. We are entering 3D Printing “Slope of Enlightenment.”
In particular, it seems inevitable that additive manufacturing will soon enable rapid prototyping and on-demand or just-in-time manufacturing of consumer and small business products. Much like Uber, Instacart, and Postmates have introduced us to the distributed workforce, unlocking excess labor and vehicle capacity, and in the process upending the way we transport ourselves and the goods around us, expect additive manufacturing to usher in the era of distributed and on-demand manufacturing.
With a smartphone in every pocket and an Internet connection in every corner of the world, it won’t require a 3D printer in every home to make this a reality. Distributed networks of printing facilities and friendly neighbors are already emerging as viable options to solve the access problem. For a powerful example, look no further than E-Nable, which is making this a reality today via a global network of volunteers that is 3D printing and distributing prosthesis for those in need.
It’s not just the plastics applications, with which consumers are familiar, but those involving metals, fabrics, and even organic materials like tissue that stand to change the way the future unfolds. We’ve seen 3D printing applied to small, intricate parts, to massive structures like homes and bridges, and to far out projects like printing pizzas in space. There aren’t a lot of areas of industry that this technology won’t be able to transform.
Here in Southern California, it seems like this region stands to benefit as much as any from this coming revolution. There is little doubt that additive manufacturing will play a major role in the evolution of our historical industries such as fashion, toys, entertainment, consumer products, and medical goods. As we speak, the emergence of micro manufacturing cell concepts is reinvigorating R&D and innovation across each of these categories by reducing time and capital commitments required to test new concepts.
As I look at startups innovating in this space, there are obvious parallels to the lean startup revolution that has transformed the way software-based businesses are built. We are seeing additive manufacturing enabling iterative development of physical goods at lower cost and with shorter cycle times than has ever been possible before. What previously took weeks and multi-thousand dollar commitments to develop tooling, can now be accomplished in days if not hours, at fractions of the cost, and with previously unthinkable flexibility. This means that not only can enterprise giants benefit from these new manufacturing efficiencies, but so too can small businesses and consumers.
At Upfront, we have a long history of investing in retail innovation, consumer products, and small business platforms, not to mention, more recently, consumer hardware. Personally, I see additive manufacturing having significant impact in each of these areas and expect to invest heavily in this category going forward.
For investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers alike, we are early in this revolution and there remain important questions to be answered about how additive manufacturing will evolve. But, there is little question that this technology will play a significant role in our collective futures.
We may not yet have our hoverboards, but 3D printing feels like the the same kind of sci-fi technology that was the domain of fantasy just a few years ago. It’s an endlessly fascinating and rewarding time to be investing in this space. If you agree, and if you share a similar vision for where additive manufacturing is headed, I’d love to connect.