The prospective effects of 3D printing on society or “Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a maker!”


3D printers have taken off over the last couple of years and especially the last half year with more and more models pushing onto the market and competing in particular for the lower budget end of the scale.
High quality 3D printing, dual colour printing and sizes beyond 10cm are still reserved for the price range beyond the £1000 price tag. Still, the available models have usually already been through several revisions, are available as pretty enclosed ready-built units as well as build-your-own packages and (after a bit of tinkering/adjusting) stable enough even for small scale industrial production.
Given the pace at which these systems are developing and the serious amount of highly skilled individuals involved I’d expect 3D printers to be commercially available and affordable for the wider public (<£100) within the next 24-36 months. This will come with benefits to the wider public as well as new challenges which I would like to elaborate on.


Where do we go from here:

3D printers are commonly seen as the big competition for current big scale industrial production. At the moment a new product get’s designed, a production process based on the design put in place and the resulting XYZs then get shipped to the requesting end users. Products are changed at such a rapid pace these days that the machines which make certain products are usually turned off or repurposed for the next/redesigned product iteration before the warranty on the last generation runs out. This leads to what we see all around us in form of a “throw away” society fuelled by firstly the fact that spare parts are not available anymore after a very short time due to non existence of prepared stock and non existence of the machines that once made the units and secondly that labour in the first world is expensive to a degree which, even if parts are available, renders repairs economically unviable. The result is that once something comes out of warranty it will not be fixed but rather replaced with a new equivalent product and if it’s still under warranty the manufacturer is very likely going to provide a new product of the same/next generation to fulfil their warranty requirements. The broken item then often get’s shipped to a country which has low enough labor costs to make the refurbishment a viable option or the broken item is sold off for it’s scrap value. Put a 3D printer into every home and this whole system collapses from two side. Firstly a new economy for the fixing of stuff would spring up as parts would be easily available but manufacturers would also loose their current strong position to enforce fast product cycles. The biggest fear for the big manufacturers comes obviously in the form of copyright theft as we all know it from pirate bay and similar platforms for music/video content and software. At the moment their product designs are protect by physical means as they are the only ones in possession of a machine that can make XYZ but this will soon change and I predict it to change in a incredibly rapid fashion. Once a critical mass of consumers are in possession of a 3D printer the first companies will provide content for them in form of design files to print new “stuff” and parts to fix/improve existing “stuff”. Those companies will quickly grow through provision of day to day items (cutlery, screws etc) and spare parts for the most common things around us (mobile phone cases to name just one example). Existing companies will so be forced to provide files to print their existing “stuff” simply because if they don’t said files will be provided by other means (pirate bay+thingyverse=piratethingies). Once we arrive at this point, and I’d expect that we get there within five years after the first thing on thingyverse has been printed 1Mio times aka the first big hit with enough 3D printers in circulation, current manufacturers have lost their position. Parts to fix their current designs are available at little to no cost and everyone can pick the version of XYZ they want to print hence they will not be able to force new product versions anymore. We have seen all this before with other forms of copyright theft. The means, with exclusion of satisfactory distribution of 3D printers, are in place and the legal threats have proven to be a rather toothless tiger. It’s still hard to see which sub-category is going to spring to live first, printing whole products, printing spare parts or printing add-ons and I think in the end it will depend on where somebody has the first ingenious idea. Finally it won’t matter though which snowball starts the avalanche, the result will be the same.


Other supporting factors:

One other critical aspect of how quickly this whole thing is going to happen could also be 3D scanning. This field is making rapid progress as proven through products like Kinect or the upcoming Google Glass so I would not expect it to be the major holdup. There’s also the fact that 3D-CAD design is very much established, free applications are available and use of the technology to manually create digital blueprints of existing things should, although time consuming, be very much feasible given the amount of qualified designers. Add the fact of novelty and potential revenue from a newly emerging market and the first undergrad is going to create files for everything in their room as a coursework… In reality the process of creating 3D printer friendly files of the most essential everyday items, repair parts and interesting “stuff” which was sold within the last 5 years is achievable, after all everything only has to be documented once. Just have a look at the amount of instructables available. Most of them are already “strip and rebuild” projects which are documented with a video camera. Make that a different camera and exploit the additional documentation/drawings and we’ve got quite some collection of data to start printing. I still remember vividly the initial discussions I had when I started to rip my CD collection, nobody believed me that soon everybody would have their music available in digital form and the biggest veto argument was that nobody would spend the same amount of time as me especially since the whole process only really got useful once one also scanned in the covers and typed up the song titles. Reality is that today I can insert a CD into the iMac which will then automatically identify it, suck down the titles and artwork from a couple of online databases and then dump the whole lot onto my drive. And, although nobody believed me back then, all this did not take 30 odd years because although it seems a mamuth task for the first person to digitise their collection further users found that they could build on this work and suddenly found themselves in a position where they could simply download the whole lot without spending any time of their own at all. Making files to copy the things around you will be exactly the same scenario with the same result, most people just can’t look beyond their own door step.

Once the process is in full swing we’ll obviously have individuals printing for their own requirements but also small scale industrial 3D printing simply because the little commercial printers won’t be able to print at the volume some people are going to require (e.g. small local businesses). Where the line needs to be drawn between 3D printing and industrial printing is probably going to be a hard decision and quite blurry, my best guess is that it’s going to be done based on volume. Obviously it’s important to distinguish between residential and commercial/industrial production to avoid illegal mass production, illegal workers and to ensure that employers follow all employment laws.


Dangers or new possibilities?
Initially there will be the unavoidable uproar of “we’re all going to loose our jobs” but actually this is only partially true if at all. It will more likely result in a shift in type of roles or even an increase of local lower pay roles.
These days the main earners from industrial production are very few individuals. Due to process automation fewer and fewer actual people are needed and the ones needed beyond a management pay grade are very highly payed and trained individuals to keep the automated systems alive and the designers of the “new stuff”. We’re still going to need some of those for larger scale objects (it’s unlikely that you can print a car anywhere soon unless you have another house to store the required printer).
Delivery drivers won’t see much of a decrease either. The huge chunk of deliveries I expect to be pushed out to people’s doors in 2-3 years will be food and, thanks to 3D printing, raw materials for people to print their own “stuff”. The bigger threat I see for delivery drivers are drones but that’s a post for another day.
In addition to this there is a whole array of new local job profiles which I expect to emerge including training for them and surrounding industry to produce tools etc. The most obvious one I think is the maker. He/she’s the one which people contact to solve problems. A bit like a new type of advanced techy handy man this person will have knowledge in electronics as well as engineering and know where to get the necessary raw materials and further specialists if required. This person will be able to handle smaller repairs/improvements with locally printed parts as well as automation/improvement to local processes/infrastructure with established rapid-prototyping platforms and their successors (Arduino/RasPi) but also have a good eye for design and colours as the results will be in direct contact with the end customer. Further specialists will be drawn in on demand for more labor intensive tasks (dig the 20m pond for the new automated pump) or special trade skills governed by additional laws (gas/electricity etc). This will put said new trade of a maker into a extremely powerful position. Other trades will depend on this one and a huge amount of knowledge, materials and services will flow past/through this profile. I can envisage local maker shops just as well as out-of-the transit makers. Many people will be able to operate their new 3D printers but they will require assistance for projects beyond a certain scope which means they are likely to require the maker’s help for this. Where home automation today boils down to buying another generic product which can only ever fit partially people will get exposed to the ecosystem around their 3D printers which was born in the rapid development and maker world hence soon start to request the presence of their local maker on a regular basis. In fact these new maker roles already exist, admittedly on a very small scale, and are currently present as the people behind the web shops which supply the maker ecosystem and to some degree also members of local hackerspaces which already influence teaching of the next generation.
On a bigger scale larger companies or even towns could start to see it necessary or at least as advantageous to have their own permanently employed maker/makers. This could also be fuelled by new legislate to decrease the amount of “old stuff” we throw away. It might simply be cheaper to employ someone to fix if the penalties are high enough and I expect those to raise sharply in the future given the size of rubbish mountains and pollutants around us. Also natural resources are not going to last forever so there will be a point in time where it will simply not be possible to constantly recreate everything rather than fix which will again be reflected in rising prices for said materials which is going to justify even first world salaries for repair work.
Another thing I foresee very much from the start when residential 3D printing takes off which makes me happy is the fact that designs are going to improve. The big brands will simply not be able to push for new product iterations anymore so their only hope for competition against “the maker round the corner” is provision of high quality designs and associated spare parts but also the fact that their designs need to be highly functional, easy to maintain and also reasonably pretty. We have the pretty bit now but I think we’ve lost the first two aspects over the last 10-15 years. As another positive result I would expect a lively link between local makers and manufacturers which will allow for feedback to flow back to manufacturers on a scale which we currently don’t have which will again improve the products and make them more suitable for the end users.

There are unfortunately clear dangers attached to 3D printing as well which can not be ignored and they will need dealing with. First example I’d like to mention are low quality/illegal materials. 3D printers will be operated at home so the raw materials need to meet certain health standards. Todays filaments get heated to melt them down and build up the new “stuff” and it’s just a matter of time until the first illegal filaments hit the market which might fill the room with “god knows what” when melting. Unhealthy filaments/materials will also be problematic as some of the newly printed “stuff” will get in direct contact with the customer and their food (new knife, new blade for food processor) which raises the bar for healthy materials even higher. In the long run I’d expect lawful punishments for circumvention of new laws which govern those new 3D printing materials just like we’ve got them in other areas these days. To avoid other issues there could easily be different “grades” of material. There is no need for all material to be expensive to a degree where is can be allowed to get in contact with food. This will probably be a cost vs safety exercise and depend on designs/security on the printer facilities as well as the future social situation (<- I’ll never give up on hoping society improves and monkey starts to “think” before monkey “does” ;) .
Second example, and that’s the one I personally dislike, is weapons. It will unfortunately be possible to abuse this technology like any other technology. Printing of weapons like plastic knifes will be hard to prevent as many people will have legitimate reasons to print them so a cap on quantities for certain “new things” is probably needed but might be hard to implement and enforce in reality.


Final thoughts:

I’m all for 3D printing but as outlined above there are some dangers which will need addressing. This woud obviously be easier if they were to be taken into account now rather than retrospectively once the first million printers have sold but, looking back in time, it is likely that nothing will get done until it’s an ever so slightly tiny bit too late or in other words until we can really no longer delay spending some of the scarce resources of government funded time and money. The thing I’m most excited about looking at the whole subject is the fact that I expect the advent of “3D printing for the masses” to have a very positive impact on society and not only improve local communities but also have beneficial long term effects on the quality and maintainability of the “stuff” we own as well as the long term ecological sustainability of our society on planet earth.

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