“There is no reason for any individual to have a 3D printer in their home.” Really?

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

Those famous words were uttered by Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1977.

Today in Tech Crunch, writer Jon Evans took the quotation and applied it to 3D printing, by swapping out “3D printer” in for “computer.” (This is 2012, so he also had to replace “his” with “their” to be politically-correct, even though it created an grammatically incorrect “plural-pronoun” issue.) The new quote is:

“There is no reason for any individual to have a 3D printer in their home.”

Of course, Jon Evans is no Ken Olsen, so his name will not go down in history for this. But I’m sure the quote will, as others with similar lack of vision and imagination will soon repeat it.

first apple mac

Some people didn’t think there would be any reason for these and their descendants to be in homes of the future either.

To give Evans credit, he does understand one thing, and that is that 3D printing centers will be established around the world, where the local citizenry will have products printed on more sophisticated 3D printers than they can afford to purchase. This is a spot-on prediction as the 3D printers that individuals can afford will always be of lesser capability than those that large companies will be able to purchase.

However, what he’s got wrong is what so many who try to predict the future get wrong time and again, and that is they don’t account for the Law of Accelerating Returns–that technological change is exponential. What we will see in ten years, and twenty years out, will be mind-blowing, and fully capable of creating many of our everyday items. How complicated does your chair, your vase, your jewelry need to be? And with the rapid advancement of printing electronic circuitry and optical elements, they will print much more than we can even imagine right now. Sure, not everything will be printed on a home 3D printer, but much will be.

Now, the author does hedge himself; perhaps as he was writing the piece he thought a bit more about it and so included this in the story:

“But you won’t see many home printers outside of passionate artists/hobbyists and home manufacturing businesses. At least not for a very long while. It just doesn’t make economic sense.” (emphasis mine)

How long is “a very long while” in Jon Evans years? I don’t know.

As a reminder of how much more quickly technology moves forward than many think, here are a few famous quotes on technology that now live in infamy:

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vaccuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.

– unknown, Popular Mechanics, March 1949


“I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.”

- Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board, IBM, circa 1948

But I think John Von Neumann had the best advice to those who try to predict where and when technology will stall.

It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology, although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in 5 years.”

- John Von Neumann, circa 1949

Words to the wise.

But mission accomplished for Tech Crunch. They came up with a headline that will draw attention, controversy and links. Wish I’d thought of it.

  • Trevor