How We Underestimate the Disruptive Potential of a New Technology

In a previous article, I discussed how we miss the potential of a new technology by holding it to a standard of perfection. I continue on the same topic by discussing how the initial low performance of a new technology explains why it is dismissed by incumbent players by taking the example of 3D Printing.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is a technology that allows one to manufacture objects not by the assembly of prefabricated parts but with the addition of drops of liquid material. This technique exists since the 1980s, but its recent progress is astounding and the price of 3D printers has decreased so much that the cheapest can now be bought for less than 1000 euros.

Technological development together with a drop in prices has rendered the manufacturing of objects accessible to almost all. We have been taught that since manufacturing uses raw materials and requires capital to buy specialized and expensive machines, in order to be profitable, it needs to be centralized and done in large series (except if the sales price is high). 3D printing puts all that into question. It allows for custom-made manufacturing in short series in a profitable way, in part because it is intrinsically economical in raw material. Its future economic and social impact remains difficult to predict, but it will certainly be very significant and some even predict a new industrial revolution.

One of this author’s correspondents was very skeptical of 3D technology. A manufacturer of specialized bicycles, he recently had to recall all his products because some of them had defaults in the soldering and the recall cost him close to 300,000 euros. According to him, such a misadventure illustrates the complexity of today’s manufacturing process. On this basis, he believes that 3D printing is far from being capable of attaining these quality requirements, and that traditional manufacturing methods still have a rosy future ahead of them.

This person committed the classic error in judging a disruptive innovation in respect to the dominant technology. Disruptive innovation is often less performing according to the dominant criteria, but it offers new possibilities according to other criteria. As such, it is not reasonable to expect 3D printing to attain the quality level of traditional manufacturing, and the fact that it does not attain this level should not be a reason to minimize its importance. In many cases, the quality of 3D printing is “good enough”, but moreover it offers tremendous possibilities in terms of suppleness and manufacturing costs. 3D printing, like all disruptive innovations, is not the same thing in better, but something different. So instead of comparing it to traditional manufacturing, we should imagine specific uses (and business models) where its strengths are unique.

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