The official NASDAQ website published a post by Robert Cyran, a Reuters BreakingViews columnist, highlighting how the Virtual-reality hype is fading while the 3D printing market appears to be solidifying.
According to Cyran – and we fully stand by this analysis – tepid sales, legal questions and immature technology are putting dreams of imminent immersive digital worlds on the back shelf. Meanwhile, steady progress is burning away disillusionment over digital manufacturing to order.
To support this theory Cyran cites a couple of cases that rose to generalist media attention, such as Monday’s announcement by Ford Motor to explore building large-scale car parts highlights the trend, however we could mention many, many more.
On the other hand creating new digital worlds is a seductive vision. Existing games and movies would seem flat and lifeless in comparison. Imposing digital images on the real world has more applications, ranging from improved IKEA couch assembly instructions to travelers seeing signs in their mother tongue. That dream led Facebook to pay $3 billion in 2014 for headset-maker Oculus. Venture capitalists competed to inject $1.4 billion into Magic Leap, a $4.5 billion valued firm located in tech cold spot south Florida.
And numerous electronics makers have rolled out gear. The hangover is now hitting. While devices are no longer rare – Samsung said earlier this year it has sold 5 million Gear headsets so far – that’s a glacial pace compared to consumers’ smartphone-adoption rate. There is little software available and the technology is a work in progress.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said recently it would take 10 years before virtual reality “gets to where we all want to go.” Magic Leap has been dogged by questions of how real its virtual technology is. And intellectual property is a thorny question after Facebook and Oculus executives lost a $500 million lawsuit.
3D printing faced a similar boom and bust a few years ago. Companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems saw their valuations rocket as speculators fantasized of every household having a device to turn digital files into real-world objects. These stocks lost 85 percent of their peak value when consumers realized home printers were mostly useful for producing plastic knick-knacks.
Yet rapidly falling costs and steadily rising abilities are propelling additive manufacturing on the factory floor. Companies have long used 3D printing to rapidly make prototypes. Manufacturers are starting to use the technology to quickly make customized or small runs of items, cutting down on shipping costs while minimizing inventory. Ford officially joined long time adopters such as Nike, Daimler, BMW, Peugeot (and just about every car company there is) as well as new stakeholders such as HP, Ricoh, General Electric, Trumpf, DMG Mori and more in the club.
The global market as a whole is still small – perhaps up to $7 billion according to our latest estimates – yet this figure will surge, as 3D printing turns manufacturing into a more customized endeavor. For now, as Cryan appropriately concludes “it’s a triumph of matter over virtual mind“.