The Latest in 3D Printing: The Era of Downloadable Objects

Would a home appliance that could make anything you desired have a magically transformative effect on society? Or would it destroy it? Or would it simply blend into the continuum of amazing technological innovations that reshape modern life all the time? We may soon have a chance to find out, if trends in desktop manufacturing hold steady.

Manufacturing may still be synonymous with factories for most of us—with hulking industrial machines and mass production and corporate ownership. Not so for members of the maker movement, however, who take Tim O’Reilly’s MAKE Magazine as their polestar. They have been working for years to change all that with their do-it-yourself ethos and their advocacy for tools and standards that can help anyone take control over the technology in their lives. One of the technologies that best embody their ideals is 3D printing, a form of rapid prototyping that can create solid objects to exact programmed specifications. For the past couple of decades, big manufacturers have used it to (as the name would imply) rapidly make prototypes of contemplated designs for testing and further development.

My most recent article for Txchnologist very briefly summarized the state of 3D printing and other additive manufacturing (or “fabber”) technologies as part of the site’s Advanced Manufacturing issue on How to Make Things. These days it’s nearly impossible to do justice to all the developments in this area: fabbers can make tools, fully assembled robot claws and other objects with moving parts, paperback solar cells, automobile bodies, glass bowls on a beach from sintered sand, models of skulls or organs from MRI scans, or replicas of the Statue of Liberty or your head or Stephen Colbert’s head. Detailed design specs for an object can be created anew or copied from online, then fed into a 3D printer to manufacture what’s desired. In effect, physical objects can be downloaded from the Internet.

I didn’t even have space to discuss the amazing application of 3D printing to tissue engineering: with glorified inkjet printers that spray living cells, researchers can create replicas of body tissues or even whole organs, either by seeding the cells into a 3D matrix or by building up the living structures from scratch. Someday, such made-to-order grafts grown from a patient’s own cells could offer important relief from the perennial deficiency of transplantable organs. Last March at the TED conference, Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University wowed his audience by creating a model for a kidney on stage.

The fall in the prices for these units is part of what is so stunning and promising about these devices. MakerBot is now selling fully assembled units of its Thing-O-Matic 3D Printer (gotta love the names for these things) for just $2,500. eMAKER had a special promotional offer of just $475 for kits of its Huxley RepRap. And a new entry called the Ultimaker is apparently more compact and faster than the Thing-O-Matic, can print larger objects and sells for $1,700 plus shipping. Wohler Associates, a consulting firm that tracks additive manufacturing, foresees that 3D printers costing only $75 or so could be making children’s toys in a few years.

Yet Wohler also questions whether fabbers will really become common home appliances any time soon: even if the price seems right, most consumers may not have the skills or interest sufficient to maintain and operate the devices—especially not if conventional manufacturers and fab-for-hire services can provide desired products more easily and at a desirable price.

That vision of the future can look disappointing beside some works of science fiction that have explored the possibilities of ubiquitous fabbers. Cory Doctorow’s short story “Printcrime” is a particularly well-known one, as are Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. They paint much more exciting scenarios, but then, too, their fabbers often incorporate nanotech molecular assemblers of a sort that we’re unlikely to see soon.

My suspicion is that Wohler is probably correct over at least the more foreseeable future and that fabbers will be hugely important, but they will work their way into society mostly as improvements to manufacturing and as the basis for new services rather than as handy-dandy microwave oven-type home gadgets. But we’ll see; being wrong would make me happier than being right.

But what kind of world results from widespread use of 3D printers to make goods on demand? Don’t conventional ideas of value go out the window when any object can be duplicated endlessly?

Not necessarily. First, as I mentioned in my Txchnologist piece, fabbers will create their own demands for energy, information, raw materials and so on, so value may still rest on them. But also, I gather from some speculations about such “post-scarcity societies” that the value of consumption becomes supercharged: everyone’s basic needs may be covered but perhaps only a minority can get access to the newest, the fastest, the best of anything. Or consumption of endless free goods may be used to help draw attention to something else in shorter supply.

What are your thoughts about the potential for 3D printers and other fabbers? Feel free to discuss any of what I’ve mentioned here or at Txchnologist.

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