3-D printing radicalized?

By Razib Khan | March 11, 2013 9:36 pm

One of the topics that occasionally crops up in personal conversations with friends is the issue of the rate of technological change. And yet the more and more I live life the more I feel that many of these discussions are predicated on the punctuated and precise emergence of technologies at a specific time and point (e.g., the web in 1995). And yet consider the “smart phone,” or more accurately, the phone as we understand it today. When the iPhone came out it was criticized for not being quite so radical or revolutionary, and I think the idea of the smart phone with a data plan has transformed the way we live our lives. It’s just not as sexy as more salient technologies. Sometimes there are even technologies which are obviously radical, but whose importance seems to bleed into our lives. Within the next 5 years I assume that civilian “drones” will become ubiquitous and banal, whether we like them or not.

The rise of drones have the potential for radically centralizing power and control. 3-D printing on the other hand pushes in the other direction. The apotheosis of this idea is a firm called Defcad, which made a splash at South by Southwest. Defcad emerged out of conflicts in the “Maker” subculture. Below is the introductory video of the founder:


Are you exhilarated? Or are you creeped out? Ultimately it may not matter. We’ve been waiting for the “future” to hit us since the 1950s. Perhaps the first quarter of the 21st century will usher in the radical transformations which have been the purview of science fiction for nearly a century.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
MORE ABOUT: 3-D printing
  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I worked in a warehouse for an engineering company that had an early version of one of these printers in ’05-06′ or so. It was pretty cool! They didn’t have to shop out their prototypes to another place – just printed it out in house. The thing cost an insane amount of money though.

    The video seemed pretty dramatic. I’d say it’ll be more like certain people will buy one and then…they’ll have one and use it for stuff. Just another tool that’ll increase productivity.

  • http://twitter.com/AnatolyKarlin AK

    Do you see 3-D printing as the type of transformative technology that will constitute an important economic driver and create tons of new 20-something millionaires as did the Web (l1990′s) and smartphone apps (2000′s) revolutions? Or will it remain an interesting but rather over-hyped and “niche” development?

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    It’s one thing to have information free, it’s another to have a machine that does all the work. The technology disappears and it becomes magic.

  • Luis Aldamiz

    I’m amazed. As you say it may not really matter if we support, oppose or are simply confused by this kind of things: reality almost invariably overrules our preferences. Same with DIY drones or ultra-cheap, ultra-light, ultra-fast graphene computers that recharge with mere light. Their general availability may be delayed punctually but soon it becomes generalized. Young people in their teens or 20s especially are extremely able to make all this their own techno-culture.

    Of course there are some dangers in all this but IMO taking the copyright and production power off the hands of Big Capital and the related governments can only play in favor of people’s empowerment. And that I feel as something good.

  • Observer

    I have serious questions about all this. Who mines and/or manufactures the raw materials used in 3-D printers (e.g. titanium, nickel, copper, thermoplastics)? And who distributes the raw materials / transports them to the printer site? Metals are dangerous to mine and they are heavy, so effective transport is a real issue. They aren’t evenly distributed, making it possible for warlord types to attempt control of supplies. (Think coltan in the Congo.) Polymers are toxic to manufacture and large-scale research facilities are required for their development. Both metal alloys and polymers are complicated affairs that have to be made to exacting standards or they don’t to work right. The visionary DIY future predicted for 3-D printers seems to focus only on the end-user, but a lot has to happen to get the raw materials to that end-user..

    • razibkhan

      good point! that god the chinese believe in a harmonious society :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/karl.zimmerman Karl Zimmerman

      I have to assume that the “maker” subculture will make something akin to desktop recycling centers within the next few decades. Surely there’s no great reason why you couldn’t home recycle plastics and make the nurdles needed for current 3D printers yourself.

      More likely, we’ll be heading into a system where there are neighborhood workshops which you go to in order to get raw materials or print large objects (or get technical assistance assembling complex printed objects). These could be set up as small businesses, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be operated as cooperatives as well. Either way it’s going to seriously undercut many aspects of modern manufacturing and retail.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.zimmerman Karl Zimmerman

    As I’ve said before, 3D printing will change global society dramatically – even moreso than vat-grown meat and autonomous cars, which will have huge impacts, but be limited to a few segments of the economy and daily life.

    I don’t see this being about a total upending of capitalism, however. Instead, I see this as an ending of the industrial model of production for consumer goods. Industrial production was much more efficient than the earlier, craft-based model, because it dramatically cut down on labor costs, and hence prices. However, 3D printing effectively cuts out the cost of manufacturing labor (what’s left is assembled by the consumer), sales, overhead, and in some cases product design (when the source file is open source).

    As I said in a response, some things will, at least initially, not be solvable by the average consumer. Many printed items are printed as kits, and need assembly today, and I don’t see that changing in the near future for equipment with multiple materials used. Some items will be too big to print on home printers (furniture, say) and things like metal printing will probably be expensive for some time yet. So consumer workshops will begin opening up within a decade. I wouldn’t be surprised if companies like Wal-Mart start, as competition, putting industrial-sized 3D printers in stores to print cheap plastic crap on demand.

    That said, industrial production will still be of use in business to business sales. If you need a steam locomotive, for example, the logic of 3D printing is limited right now – and it gets worse if you need 300. We might be heading into an unusual world, where most of the formal material economy is comprised of organizations (including both businesses and governments) selling to each other, and the consumer economy slips mostly into the informal sector.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tricky.dick.568 Tricky Dick

      I honestly think this is all pretty over-rated.

      If you look at what Americans spend their money on, it’s (in order) housing, transportation, food, insurance/retirement savings, health-care, clothing, and liquor/tobacco. Those things account for basically all consumer spending. None of those things are really going to be radically changed by 3-D printing, even if you assume that the economies of scale from mass-manufacturing all disappear.

      We just don’t spend much money on cheap plastic crap.

      • chris_T_T

        Education is up there too (although it’s generally hidden in housing costs and loan repayments).

  • http://www.facebook.com/tricky.dick.568 Tricky Dick

    I think 3-D printing will be useful for small businesses testing out prototypes, but the idea that everybody is going to start printing all of their stuff and withdraw from the formal economy is libertarian claptrap.

    • chris_T_T

      Yeah, 3-D printing has reached the level of nanotechnology in terms of the nigh-magical capabilities it’s supposed to grant.

      • http://www.facebook.com/tricky.dick.568 Tricky Dick

        Yeah, being able to produce screws and custom parts will be pretty great. But this isn’t remotely the same as say, self-driving cars.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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