3D printers have been all the rage for the last year, and it’s easy to see why. They seemed to come out of nowhere at last years CES show and have been media darlings ever since with their low price, ease of use, and the “wow” factor of watching something be created before your eyes. As NPR’s Planet Money explains, these little machines shift and decentralize the means of production – a very rare occurrence on our world-wide historical technology curve. What happens to our economy when everyone can manufacture their own goods and replacement parts for pennies?
One possible – and the most optimistic – view could be that we enter a post-scarcity economy. PBS’s excellent series Idea Channel tackled this one last year (and if you’re not watching Idea Channel, you should really get on that). While this isn’t in the cards just yet, 3D printers will eventually revolutionize entire industries and cause a massive amount of disruption.
The most recent example of this is the announcement from Filabot that their product will recycle your pre-existing scrap plastic (milk jugs, soda bottles, etc.) into 3D printer filament – in other words, this machine with “upcycle” your trash into the raw material used in 3D printers thus creating a closed loop of resources within your own home. This could be huge for both the in-home manufacturing and recycling movements as it solves 2 problems with one very high tech rock. Imagine a Filabot under your sink that you throw all your recyclable plastic into, and a Makerbot in your living room where you can make your own spare parts, toys, utensils, art, and maybe even clothes.
Before we ever get there, this technology will most certainly have a Napster moment. PandoDaily’s Adam L Penenberg recently posited that the NRA might well lead this charge against 3D printed gun parts. Whether it is the NRA, Mattel, or the Gap, large and entrenched industries are going to fight this movement as they always have. Every technology that has disrupted the current system has always been fought tooth and nail – sometimes successfully (filesharing), sometimes not (the VCR, the gasoline engine). How 3D printing fares when the lawyers and interest groups get involved will depend largely on public sentiment and adoption of the technology by the public at large.
Another road block that is commonly invoked when 3D printers are hailed as an answer to all our various problems is that the technology is not there yet. Absolutely true. But historically, this negative position on technology has always been wrong. 3D printers will evolve and grow, and although some exciting possibilities will not materialize others that no one can yet imagine will. 3D printing WILL transform industries and life as we know, it’s the specifics about how this will happen that are fuzzy. Just don’t be surprised if someday you print yourself a fresh shirt in the morning before you eat your printed waffle and use your custom printed key to lock your door on the way out.