Amara’s Law and 3-D Printing

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Amara’s Law was coined by the noted futurist Roy Amara. It states:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

We immediately thought of Amara’s Law after reading the New York Times article 3-D Printing Grows Beyond Its Novelty Roots, which suggests that “3-D printing could be poised to play a major role in manufacturing.”

The reason we thought of Amara’s Law is the New York Times 2010 article 3D printing is spurring a manufacturing revolution said pretty much the same thing.

So did the 2015 Harvard Business Review article The 3-D Printing Revolution. Key quote:

“Here’s what we can confidently expect: Within the next five years, we will have fully automated, high-speed, large-quantity additive manufacturing systems that are economical even for standardized parts.”

3-D printing was invented over 40 years ago.  

And according to many futurists and analysts, 3-D printing has been five years away from fundamentally changing manufacturing ever since.

But it hasn’t because 3-D printing is an example of how long new technologies can take to mature and reach mainstream use.

It also nicely illustrates a truism of technology forecasting – new technologies are easy to spot, but getting the timing right around when a new technology will become mainstream is extremely hard.

This, coupled with the incentives futurists, analysts and companies have to overstate the near-term importance of new technologies, explains the first part of Amara’s Law.  

However, we agree that after 40 years of development, 3-D printing is becoming mainstream.  

The recent NYT article covers the 3-D printing firm Vulcan Forms

As the picture below shows, Vulcan Forms 3-D printers are huge.

Vulcan forms 3-D printer

And they use a wide variety of materials to deliver high-quality, high-volume printed parts at competitive prices.  

Technology forecasting is hard. Yogi Berra was right when he said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

And we’ve made our share of forecasting mistakes – especially around timing.  

So, when you read about exciting new technologies that are about to change the world, keep Amara’s Law in mind.  

See McKinsey’s recent article The mainstreaming of additive manufacturing and our Small Manufacturing section for more on 3-D printing

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