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3D Printing: What does the power to make ANYTHING mean to the world?

Imagine a world where 3-D printers are as common as dishwashers.

The technology has been around for about a decade on an industrial level, but 3D printers are beginning to be marketed as home devices with prices getting lower, and lower. It’s predicted that in the next 3-5 years anyone will be able to afford to print/build anything in their own homes. 3D printers will likely be mass marketed to developed countries and developing nations will see quick adoption based on availability of necessary ‘ingredients.’ As simple as the device may be, its proliferation may send massive ripples through industries, legal systems, and obviously the D-I-Y movement.

What industries/products will be disrupted most of 3D printing becomes mainstream?

[Len]: To quote The Graduate, “Plastics.” The substance is everywhere, easily reusable, moldable, and cheap. The substance also comprises so many of the small items we buy at department and hardware stores. While plastic suppliers may still be generating revenue by selling material to 3D printer users directly, the middle-men who sell objects are going to see aisles of products drop in demand. People will still demand complex objects because the labor and research needed to produce items like electronics or furniture may not be worth doing on our own. But things like, cups, spatulas, or coat hangers may be something we never buy again when 3D printing becomes the new normal. Buying craftsmanship will return, businesses making money from selling commodities at volume will suffer.

[Gunther]: I’m not even going to go there — pretty much everything will be affected from a vertical standpoint (in fact, this is a horizontal value proposition). I can’t help but think about the notions of process and activity – what things are people naturally given to… Enlarging body parts? Making “digital” imprints (yes, read into that entendre please…)? Playing object games? Animating themselves? The spectrum will go from your more routine activities like simple image representation and recognition to absurdities like… Well, you get the point. Welcome to the new, new “normal”. Whatever that means.

[Siobhan]: I am so going to go there – for those who haven’t thought much about this. After looking at some demo videos, my kids were brainstorming how the entire manufacturing industry would change after 3D printers become ubiquitous home devices. Imagine what happens to LEGO, IKEA, NIKE, when you can purchase the software to produce your own LEGO Death Star Kit, that IKEA dinner service, or NIKE shoes in your own home. The printers will be dirt cheap, the ‘Brand’ owners will make their $ back on selling the design files and the necessary customized materials, potential add-ons or patented polymers. Copywrite/patents/branding/scarcity/piracy will morph accordingly. So will hacking, viruses, etc. Think too about what happens from production to point of sale. The manufacturing industry of any mass marketed production assembly device could collapse and so will the transport industries that ship goods (shipping materials will still be necessary). Traditional sales outlets will be obsolete and there will be no line-ups at the check-out. Service for repairs could potentially be managed in home if you could print the required new parts. Of all the examples I’ve looked at, check out Urbee’s 3D printed hybrid car – on top of the fact that this car is fully functioning NOW, the 3D printing ‘additive layer manufacturing’ process means there is no waste of materials. And the car has been designed to last 30 years and as a hybrid gets 100 mpg. Now where’s MY 3D printer?

[Sasha]: A methodology I employ to understand the effects of 3D printing on industry is a simple premise I call “distance from information.” What I mean is that how difficult is it to represent said output in binary means. For example, representing organic materials in terms of information is quite difficult given the complexity of cellular biology. A chair design however is quite easily presented in terms of information in the form of an AUTOCAD file. Raw materials aside, which is a big aside, the distance from information is a quick-fire way to think about the effects of 3D printing.

Technically, a person could download a design to build a gun. Should the government regulate what designs get distributed across the web?

[Len]: When having to choose, I always lean towards “freedom to” versus “freedom from.” I would argue that we already have enough laws now to regulate the 3D printing markets. Creating a weapon and using it should be prosecuted the same way that buying one and using it would. Ultimately, blocking information is the most detrimental long-term way to prevent problems. The 3D printing revolution could potentially spur thousands of new industries and no type of censorship should act as a potential obstacle towards that end.

[Gunther]: The government should understand, acutely, what compels people to make certain things, including guns. What functions of a gun is someone most focused on? What are its components? How is it being “dressed up”? This is like an ongoing behavioral study. You don’t regulate intentions, or even the conscience mind of a citizen, you try to better understand them and then do your best to regulate, or even obfuscate, potential scenarios. Think about the Uni Bomber – what process did he go through? How could he have been stopped? Or been steered in another direction? Groups like the NRA wouldn’t be so controversial if we had this kind of context around why people use guns or make weapons in the first place. Maybe the issue would go from “should you be able to carry a gun” to “here are the social responsibilities for carrying a gun (or not carrying one, depending on who you are)”.

[Siobhan]: I like Gunther’s point here regarding anticipating potential scenarios based on demonstrated events. Trying to regulate the distribution of software/design files for 3D printed objects will raise the same challenges and circumventions we’ve already seen in terms of attempting to regulate the net. In our post on SOPA I referred to The Citizens’ Lab at the University of Toronto – who’ve created the Psiphon censorship circumvention software which allows individuals living in highly censored countries like Iran, Bhurma or China to access blocked sites or filtered information through ‘innocent’ urls. We’ve seen similar initiatives like DeSopa launched as anti-SOPA circumvention measures. As it’s highly unlikely that governments will be able to regulate the net for design files or institute secure blocks on machines that can be hacked, maybe all we can hope for is for governments and agencies like the Citizen Lab to monitor for the potential sharing of design files for bioweapons (homemade Anthrax – yup – it’s possible) as well as the red flag materials that might be used to make dangerous objects. There are already open source 3D printing community and software sharing sites online (ReplicatorG and Thingiverse) and Etsy style commercial sites like Shapeways that ship custom designed objects, and design company Freedom of Creation is already custom printing for major brands.  Can governments in neo-liberal consumer driven democracies regulate 3D printing? Doubt it.

[Sasha]: I hesitate to ever want to see regulation ahead of technological development and because the design is only one component of a functioning weapon I doubt design control should be employed in the immediate term. What I can see happening is a tightening of the controls surrounding raw materials. Just because we have the ability to manufacture in a distributed way that doesn’t imply that the entire supply chain becomes totally distributed.

In the book “Makers” by Cory Doctorow, a not-too-distant future see 3D printing technology skyrocket and get adopted by all socio-economic groups. Ultimately it creates a world full of useless garbage all while dismantling thousands of industries profiting from scarcity. Is this a realistic outcome? How can we shepherd this technology to benefit all parties? 

[Len]: This is my greatest fear when it comes to 3D printing. I would hate for experimentation with creating tangible products ultimately leads to piles of garbage. My hope is that the same plant-based materials that are starting to go into water bottles will eventually be used for the many products we may want to start creating ourselves at home. Ones that can be thrown away and easily compost. Contrary to the point I made above, I WOULD like government intervention when it comes to materials used for 3D printing. A recycling or material sharing program would be an efficient way for people to reuse materials and this is something that local leaders can help facilitate.

[Gunther]: Scarcity does what it does best — it grows, plateaus and then cannibalizes itself (just look around for proof). A realistic outcome is actually one of cultural abundance – literally new ways for people to look at the world and make things out of their physical environments. It levels the playing field to a certain degree because it cultivates and manages creativity in a way that isn’t binding. The beneficial – or reciprocal benefit – is in creating value; in other words, anyone can create something in his/her living room (or a public space), and if other folks are doing something similar, you then know there’s a market for it. Product companies can build the things that people collectively envision and prototype, and they can (hopefully) share in the profits with them. We can make Foster Kane’s Rosebud come to life (ex: a magic sled that transports virtual goods to people that are impoverished…).

[Siobhan]: Solid answer, Gunther. And Doctorow’s future vision is a totally possible one. Maybe the result of the middle ground. No leaders or heroes, no villains, just wads and wads of stuff.

At the end of the day there is nothing stopping someone with a 3D printer from hacking it or creating a design file that can produce some as of yet unimagined object of destruction, we will have to trust in a global community of good people or maybe good-enough people. That may seem a really facile answer, yet it is likely the only answer. Create good models of fair use in a system where producers and consumers perceive and receive value in transactions. Some small number will lead remarkable world changing initiatives through 3D printing that will inspire others and some hopefully very small number of extremists will pursue darker options.

[Sasha]: I actually think that disruptive technologies like 3D printing simply push value in the capitalist sense around to new ghettos. If distributed production deflates major intermediaries like shipping companies and large-scale manufacturing operations I could quite quickly see value being pushed to the two extremities – design and raw materials. And because design value eventually moves to zero when scarcity is eliminated raw material costs could escalate. That being said this may be the greatest opportunity our world has had in the area of recycling. Remediating garbage may create whole new economies around material sourcing.


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  • Ben Kunz

    Fascinating discussion, thank you.

    The birth of 3-D printing will probably lead to a “Warshaw Curve,” in my opinion: the idea by video producer Douglas Warshaw that a rise in the supply of any production technology typically creates an inverted, U-shaped bell curve of quality output. Draw a wide “U,” and on the left side write “bad stuff” and on the right write “good stuff,” and you’ll see the logic. In video, we have moved this way with grainy YouTube videos on one extreme and super-HD movie files on the other. In newsprint, we are seeing this with the surviving publishers being lousy local community papers or the high-quality New York Times. Knowledge is flowing this way with new communication networks enabling rapid scientific advance on one end and endless bloggers regurgitating “how to get social media ROI” on the other. Everyone in the middle gets killed when barriers to production or access fall. You have to either focus on more utility with low quality at mass scale (YouTube, IZEA advertising) or quality with artificial scarcity (“Titanic” now in 3-D, million-dollar spots on the Super Bowl).

    3-D printing will create this same curve. My kids would love to build cheap Lego sets at home and I might toy with modeling. But, for many years, the output will be prolific and bad. If I want a good pair of running shoes, a mountain bike that won’t break down, a classical guitar, or a watch that flashes status, I won’t print it in the basement but will end up at specialty stores or the mall.

    The inverted “U” of quality seems a normal distribution pattern in any network of production. Len, you’ve noted in the past (fall 2009 I recall, that’s right, buddy, I’m learning from you) that most social media sentiment is neutral, with only a small percent of people loving or hating a brand. Even in our production of feelings, the majority is blah, with highest response in the extremes of poor or great. Material manufacture will follow the same curve of emotion, video, print, and knowledge, and it is a mistake to assume the peak on the high-quality end will disappear if low-quality output surges.

    The real question, of course, is how Kate Winslet will feel having her now-younger self in love scenes projected on the big screen in 3-D.

    • Sioflynn

      thanks for your response, Ben. I’m filing away the Warshaw Curve as I think you’re absolutely right. Here’s a thought though, walk through any Walmart, Zellers, Toys R’ Us, and gage the quality on display & the volume being sold. Yes, there will be a huge amount of crap printed at home & my guess is that if Walmart is any indication, people will be just as willing to print poor quality as buy it. And I would guess that LEGO will translate really easily to 3D – the challenge might be finding all the teeny tiny bits in the powder.

  • siobhan o’flynn, phd

    where’s my pic??

  • Pamela Rutledge

    And think of the exciting disruption in education (and the shift in valued training) that would result from developing the cognitive skills of 3D visualization and planning as a new ‘normal’. It is the physical equivalent of transmedia storytelling: additive, multi-dimensional thinking.

    • Gunther Sonnenfeld

      @pamelarutledge – Hi Pam, HNY, nice to see you here. To your point about transmedia storytelling, I agree: the experiential aspects of this will blend well with contextual narrative. I can’t help but think about dynamic “product stories” that emerge out of the creation – or collective creation – of something, and the various accounts from creators/participants that are told alongside of it.

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