3D Printing: Fad or Factory?
My previous post on how ink is made got me thinking about printing, which invariably lead me to think about the hot topic of 3D-printing.
It just so happens that 3D-printing is the topic of one of the articles published by MIT Technology Review on the topic of the “future of manufacturing”. As, with many articles on the subject of 3D-printing there is a presumption that this is a revolutionary product that will lead to a factory in every home. Parallels are also usually drawn between how desktop computing has changed many industries beyond recognition and is leading to the slow death of others (yes, I’m looking at you, the high street music store) and predictions are made as to how desktop fabrication will lead to the slow death of large scale manufacturing. I don’t think this is the case.
The primary near term reason why this will not occur is due to the technical limitations of the current crop of 3D printers. These desktop machines are limited by being only able to print one or two specific materials (usually plastics) at a time, they are constrained by the volume of the machines themselves and the final product often has a rough finish. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can make anything you want as long as it’s white, plastic and 28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm. Although, this technology as with all other technologies is always improving there is still a long way to go before we get to the replicator from Star Trek: TNG.
Another reason why I don’t think that tinkering at home on a 3D printer will be the first nail in the coffin for large scale manufacturing is due to issues of usage and scale. To understand, all you need to do is ask yourself how many copies of everyday items do you need? How many plates and cups do you need to replace each year from breakage? Do you go to the shop and buy more plates after you discard your old ones after one use? It’s not very sustainable, practical or useful on an everyday scale to manufacture-on-demand like this. Desktop fabrication will probably be used occasionally in the home and not everyday as is the case with computers
However, there is no denying this technology will eventually have an impact. From an environmental point of view I can see desktop fabrication causing a shift towards local production of goods, which would result in a reduction of goods being transported from distant factories. In other words, I believe that desktop revolution will occur on the high street and not in the home. Large scale manufacturing of everyday goods will probably shift from the edge of town to the city centre. This will probably occur in something akin to Shapeways, where you would probably go to a shop on the high street and use the banks of faster, more professional machines available in order to print out your design or a design from their library of products.
Besides being potentially the saviour of the high street I hope that this technology will inspire people into science and engineering as the original home computers did (I still have fond memories of my ZX Spectrum). I think that the another desktop fabrication revolution will occur in STEM education. It’s been sad to see the decline of woodworking, metalworking and the like over the years. It would be good to see a 3D printer as the central part of a Fab Lab or Hack space for students that are similar to that described by Neil Gershenfeld in his book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop – from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. Such a resource belonging to one school or a network of schools could offer an environment where students can learn, use and refine skills such as design, numeracy and problem solving. A nation of school leavers equipped with the skills and experience to design good quality products to be printed off in such shops around the world would be the real post-industrial revolution.