3D printing has always struck me as either the beginning of an entirely new economic model or a geeky hobby that will ultimately peter out. I tend to think more the former but only time will tell. In the current state of technology, a 3D printer prints objects in plastic rather than words on paper. This technology remains in its infancy and is heavily used by geeks and hobbyists to print toys and iPod cases, but it can manufacture many objects in a garage that in the past required a factory.
Maximum PC has a lengthy and useful article about 3D printing (http://www.maximumpc.com/article/features/inside_makerbot_future_3d_prin...). The article focuses on MakerBot, a two-person company that makes affordable 3D printers out of a factory in Brooklyn. The MakerBot vision of the future is one in which we can download and manufacture any object whenever we want (http://www.thingiverse.com). If you go to their website, you can view a list of the stuff people have created with the MakerBot. The Thingiverse includes simple, useful everyday objects such as bathplugs, doorknobs, hooks, and many, many novelties and toys: the Gothic Cathedral Play Set, a toy bunny, a devil head sculpture, Warhammer figures, Lego men, a Green Lantern ring, and a selection of iPhone cases and iPad holders. The MakerBot turns digital designs into real objects.
If you feel like ordering a MakerBot (and really someone on Republibot should do so and report back), it costs $1,225.00 and takes about 8-12 hours to build. It comes in two sizes, the Cupcake, which prints objects around the size of a cupcake, and the Thing-O-Matic, which prints objects around the size of a kitten. Once built the MakerBot’s fills as much desk space as a big microwave, and you can print objects by downloading designs from the Thingiverse, or by creating your own designs using 3D modeling software.
A bit of research on the web demonstrates that 3D printers are growing in usefulness and are now much more than just a geeky hobby. Surgeons have created 3D models to help them prepare for difficult operations. Specially constructed bandages designed for individual patients and wounds can be printed. Architectural firms can print 3D models. Businesses can produce prototypes of products (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/oct2008/tc2008103_077223.htm).
The NYTimes points out that 3-D printing is leading to businesses that sell “iPhone cases, lamps, doorknobs, jewelry, handbags, perfume bottles, clothing and architectural models” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/technology/14print.html?_r=1).
The Times points out that there’s one California company trying to build houses. It’s printer would fit into a tractor trailer and would download patterns and print out layers of concrete which could be connected and form the walls of a house.
3D printers allow small manufacturers to more easily create products and print them to order, but in the long run the printers do create a number of challenges for the future economy. 3D printing is manufacturing without workers, which is a boon to small manufactures, but not so much to the workers. It’s unclear what the economic effect of 3D printers will be. The loss of jobs for manufacturing workers might hurt America less than one might imagine because most American companies design products and then manufacture them oversees. Instead of outsourcing manufacturing to China, American companies could print many products themselves. A country like China, which has export-led economic growth, could be utterly devastated. More robust and complicated 3D printers would certainly destroy many assembly line jobs and make creativity and design the center of the economy.
There’s another problem or complexity here as well. Let’s say you design a superb iPhone case. You sell it, and it becomes a hot commodity. What’s to stop people from just printing it in their garage rather than paying you for it? You could sell the plans, perhaps at a reduced price, so people could print it themselves, but why pay you at all if they can copy your design or get a pirated blueprint off the Internet?
Although individual consumers would certainly benefit from this type of technology, what will it do to the world economy? What will happen to the economy when 3D printing can print circuitry and complex mechanical devices and not just plastic doodads?
Many singularity types have predicted that 3D printing will lead to a Utopia where anything you want can be printed from cheap raw materials. That type of change would shift our economic model from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance. Would we then live in a utopia where most commodities are freely available, and people can focus on art and self-actualization? Or would we live in a massive welfare state, a jobless dystopia where boredom and anomie lead to violence and self-destruction (a Clockwork Orange future)? Would we be forced to adopt socialism or a negative income tax because of the joblessness the 3D printers might create? And these scenarios are assuming the robots or zombies haven’t already taken over.
Robert Bee is a freelance writer and professional librarian living in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org