Eventually, 3D printing could eliminate mass-market manufacturing. This is a fairly obvious statement for the "maker" community, but for those of us who are not as familiar with the technology, this is a pretty bold idea to chew on.
However, when you think about it, we already do our own printing in a lot of other ways -- paper printers and digital cameras are just two examples. Is it so far-fetched to think that "home printing" of physical objects will be next?
I was thrilled to see a session on 3D printing at the 2012 Women's Forum Global Meeting, which I attended last week in Deauville, France. The speaker was Adrian Bowyer, a lecturer at the University of Bath and the director of RepRap Ltd -- arguably the most widely-used 3D printer in its niche, but growing, community.
Here are 5 things from Bowyer's presentation that should make you as excited as I am about 3D printing technology, or, at least, feel more knowledgeable the next time time someone describes them as "the future."
1. Someday soon, we will be able to build homes using 3D printers. You would simply set the 3D printer up on the piece of land, Bowyer explained, wait around 20 hours, and it will "print" a concrete frame. The materials would theoretically cost 25 per cent less than traditional houses, and the labor costs would be virtually non existant. One can only imagine the impact this will have on poverty-stricken slums. (And, really, it's strange that housing construction, as an industry, still works almost entirely manually. Car companies, among most others, have use automated production for years.)
2. They allow you to recycle objects. Bowyer used the example of children's shoes, which you can make for your kid using your 3D printer. When their feet inevitably grow, you can use that same pair as your material for new shoes. If you need more to account for the larger size, you can throw in a milk bottle, which is often made out of similar plastic.
3. You can now use a 3D printer to make more 3D printers. Bowyer himself invented the first prototype (Rep Rap). While it cannot yet make ALL the parts, it creates most of what you need -- and Bowyer and his team have designed it so that the other bits are almost universally available elsewhere at low costs.
4. Open source designs are easily accessible. Of course, this doesn't mean all the designs are free (though many are), but I am generally excited about any network of people that subscribes to an open source philosophy -- a pragmatic methodology that promotes free redistribution and access to an end product's design and implementation details -- which the "maker" community largely does.
5. The more complicated the objects are to make, the lower the cost to make them (generally speaking). Your money is going towards the material, and the more complex objects will likely have more ridges and holes -- which require less plastic than a solid block.
With these ideas in mind, and also the theme of the conference itself, a question I am left with is: How will this technology affect women? Considering the incredible impact these devices could have in developing countries, I would imagine there would be huge implications to making them accessible to women, who are often the poorest and least educated population in poverty-stricken areas. Will they empower financially dependent, disenfranchised women to acquire basic tools for the home -- or to even build their own home?
But then, there's that thing on all of our minds right now, both in Europe (where the Women's Global Meeting took place) and in the United States, where I live: Jobs, jobs, jobs. The proliferation of 3D printers (particularly once they are able to be replicated at extremely low costs) would have complicated and sweeping implications on our work force -- the details of which require an article of their own.
What do you think a future without mass-market manufacturing would look like? Sound off in the comments below.