You’re probably familiar with the idea of 3-D printing and recent news stories of the first consumer 3-D printers, but have you heard of stereolithography? Well, it’s a term that was created and patented by Charles Hull in 1986, and it refers to a process by which three-dimensional objects can be printed from a computer-aided design tool. Sound familiar? Take a look at a news report on the topic from January 1989.



As it turns out, 3-D printing really isn’t new. And if we look at many areas of technology, we’ll find the same repeating trends emerging. So why is this? Why do revolutionary ideas seem to appear but then take decades to come to mass market? It's hardly uncommon, so let's take a look. (Learn more about 3-D printing in From Mind to Matter: Is There Anything 3-D Printing Can't Do?)

Technology Repeats Itself

3-D printing isn't alone in being something old presented as something brand-new. Looking at the current use of the cloud - another buzzword - many organizations are limiting their use because of operational concerns, especially security. I’ve worked with clients with such concerns. I think they're often valid, and I understand their hesitation. The risk of brand damage and financial fines relating to data security affect how extensively an organization chooses to adopt a new technology. Many organizations view cloud technologies as a trend and something of limited commercial value.

Parallel these views with the emergence of commercial applications on the Web in the early 1990s and we can start to see that there are social and economic factors at play that affect how quickly technology is adopted. This isn't just about how revolutionary the idea is; adoption is linked to keeping barriers to entry low. So what slows or stops technology adoption?

The Technology Hype Cycle

The technology Hype Cycle, a branded graphical tool developed by Gartner, helps explain the sociological response to new technology. First, there is a technology trigger, one or more inventions that result in a first-generation product being brought to market. Media interest, advertising and promotion help sell a dream, a revolution. It's appealing. It's advertised as being different, staying ahead, saving time and money. So, early adopters take calculated risks in seeking to realize commercial or personal benefit.


Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons/Jeremy Kemp (concept by Gartner Inc.)

What often happens is that the first-generation product delivers some - but not all - of the benefits the technology is believed to have. Issues that slow or even stop adoption typically arise. Users' inflated expectations peak. Those are followed by a period of disillusionment. For stereolithograpy, cost was a major factor to mass-market adoption, because the machines and liquid resin required pushed the cost toward big-budget territory. With more recent progress and an associated lower cost of manufacture, 3-D printers are starting to be available for consumers. For cloud, the privacy of stored data, coupled with the potential for visibility by government organizations, are still of significant concern, limiting use by organizations.

Following disillusionment, second and third-generation products typically appear, which steadily deliver more and more of the originally promised benefits, or evolve the benefits in a new direction. A so-called "slope of enlightenment," follows during which barriers to adoption are addressed and/or a must-have reason to use the technology appears. At this point, an early majority starts to adopt the technology as they see first cases of commercial advantage appear.

Thinking back to the Web, the success of online shops like Amazon and eBay created the killer reason for existing physical stores to adopt e-commerce. But the concept of online shopping is much older. It was invented by Michael Aldridge in 1979.

Finally, there is what's called a "plateau of productivity," during which mature product offerings emerge, clear benefits are delivered and more conservative enterprises and customers adopt the new technology. Eventually, older technologies no longer hold market share, are evolved or retired, forcing even stragglers to adopt the new technology.

Repeating Trends or Hype Cycle?

So do technology trends repeat, or is this just the adoption cycle of any new technology? Often, new technology disappears from mainstream media as the period of disillusionment progresses. Old news is not news, right? Years later we may hear about it again in a slightly different guise, because:

  • Barriers to adoption have been resolved
  • Other technology acts as an enabler to create a "must-have" reason
  • The cost of manufacture decreases enough to open the technology to new market segments
  • The technology has been adapted to provide different benefits
It can often seem as though an idea is ahead of its time, and then years later, events combine to enable an invention to revolutionize the way we do things. To us, it sounds as though technology trends repeat. And this can occur. But often, underneath the covers, what’s happening is that the technology Hype Cycle is being played out.

So take note of what new technologies you hear about this year. Chances are they could be coming back around.