The Hype around 3D printing generated by the Reprap revolution of the early 21st century led the public to believe that by 2020 we’d all have 3D printers in our kitchens and living rooms, printing everything we needed for our hyper-modern lives. As is always the case with these things, the promises were more ambitious than what actually happened. A 3D printer is still an amazing thing of course and for those that own one, they fulfill a role that we couldn’t have even imagined as little as a decade ago. Designers, engineers, artists, DIY enthusiasts and the bloody minded are using them all over the world and doing in many cases remarkable things. The fact that you can make an object to fill a singular niche that you only found on the morning of the same day is, and should remain, astounding.
The hype surrounding 3D printing has hit its plateau though and seems to be losing momentum; I think we can all agree about that. The dreams of utopia where we 3D print everything society needs remain firmly in the realm of fantasy. That’s the trouble with hype and dreams and fantasy I suppose, they give you something that you can only hold in your imagination. As soon as you try and make a solid object that you can actually hold in your hand, the restraints of the imagination become starkly apparent – there aren’t any. There were always going to have to be several smaller steps between a fledgling open source technology and a magical all-purpose replicator, we all know that the hard work comes in the steps in between, but when you’re painting the picture and trying to convince others of what you know is possible – you have to make it good or they stop listening.
I’ve been an evangelist for Reprap ever since I first read about the project and I’ve tried to read as much as I could about the little steps in between, the technological developments – not just in order to keep up to date myself – but to help persuade those who need persuading, which early on was virtually everyone. When I heard about a machine that can print its own parts, my imagination spiraled into deep space as a Von Neumann Universal Constructor, setting up bases on Jupiter’s moons and building facilities to mine for resources. It is virtually impossible to keep your imagination in check when you know a technology has the potential to change the world – and just as this is the case – the real content of hype is impossible to fulfill.
This was the beginning of my journey and I’m still on it today, I try and print something every day and I try and convince all of my friends to take a set of parts off of me to build their own, but ultimately we live in a world where you can buy anything you need from China. “A China on your Desktop” was what Dyson called it at some point and that phrase caught on. The misrepresentation of what a 3D printer can do that we’ve seen over the hype-cycle in the media is down to this sort of thing being widely reported. Such a phrase was surely meant somewhat tongue in cheek and to be taken with a serious pinch of salt, but on the bright side, it is the hype in the media that has led to the thousands of Reprap companies and communities that we now have all over the world.