3D Printers: Making is the New Taking

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Hemispheres Magazine on 1 December 2013

Back in December 1972, my dad surprised the family with a strangely prescient holiday gift: an Odyssey, the first-ever home video game console. At the time it was a nerdy novelty - this was even before Pong, mind you - but it was the harbinger of seismic shift in entertainment. Then, five years later, dad’s were coming home with Radio Shack’s TRS 80, one of the first retail home computers, and another glimpse into the future.

Likewise, this holiday season - below the radar but equally significant - families are unboxing their very first 3D printers. Sure, they’re as amazed by this hi-tech novelty as we were with video games and PCs back in the day. But they’re just as unaware of how central these devices will eventually become to the way we live - not to mention how disruptive they will be to manufacturing, business, and the entire global economy.

3D printing, or “additive manufacturing”, has been around since the late 1980’s, when lasers were used to lay thin layers of UV-sensitive polymer, one on top of the other. The purpose was to be able to design an object or component on the computer, and then fabricate it right away for prototyping. But that was an expensive and largely experimental process confined to specialized industries and research labs.

  1. Over the past thirty years, however, new materials and technologies have brought the price of 3D printers down from a few hundred thousand dollars to $2100 for a Makerbot from the Microsoft store at the mall, or just $1200 for a Cube 3D from any Staples. And if today’s free color inkjets are any indication, 3D printers may soon end up given away as loss leaders to sell spools of the plastic used for printing. They will be everywhere.

While today’s 3D printing companies and their products may be over-hyped and over-valued, I’d venture that the truly massive impact of this technology as a whole has yet to be fully digested. This is bigger than even the hypesters realize. Just think of how far regular printing has come from the days of daisywheels and dot-matrix to today’s photo printers. Yes, today 3D printing means mostly toy robots, whistles, and model cars. But it’s also replacement limbs fabricated on location in the operating room. It’s new fabrics and fashions. And, most of all, it’s new ideas about how things get made, by whom, and on what authority.

Where 3D gets truly disruptive is when home fabrication challenges the kinds of commercial and legal restrictions once enforced through technological barriers to production and distribution. Weapons, drugs, and automobiles are hard to make without a factory. With 3D printing in the mix, how do you stop someone from printing a gun? Or even just printing his own replacement part for an automobile because the one offered by the manufacturer was too expensive? Biochemists are already experimenting with 3D printers to create plastic “scaffolds” for the growing of ears, noses, and even medications. That’s right: 3D printers will soon make hobbyists capable of fabricating both patented prescription and illegal drugs, to the horror of both big pharma and the DEA.

And newer printers aren’t limited to just plastics. At this year’s New York Makerfaire, a father and son team demo’d a home unit they’re offering called Vader, which prints out metal objects.

We’re fast approaching an era when having the plans for an object or even a substance will be all one needs to make it. Right now, we’re still in the equivalent of the Kinko’s era for paper printing. Innovative do-it-yourselfers are more likely to design an object in their home computer, and then print it out at one of many publicly accessible printers at hobby shops, libraries or even Staples. But think of how far print publishing has come - or fallen, depending on your perspective - since that time. Everything digital can be copied, shared, and distributed globally. Not just text, but music, photos, and movies can be copied and shared infinitely, for free, as long as they can be reduced to bits.

But the real world of stuff was never subject to this new economy of digital replication. Until now.

Soon, having the right digital blueprint will allow anyone, anywhere, to print up almost anything. In such a world, keeping those blueprints secret may be the only leverage corporations have left in protecting their patents, and their markets. The smartest among them will have to find ways to adapt.

For example, I can imagine Jeff Bezos saving on merchandise shipping charges by offering all Amazon Prime members a free 3D printer through which to print out their purchases. Only the unit would be locked in such a way as to permit only the production of items bought on Amazon. Of course, daring users might simply “jailbreak” their printers in order to produce open source objects.

A sharing economy of open source 3D files will live right alongside the for-profit one, much like Linux and Android sit alongside for-profit operating systems. And alongside them, a 3D-printing community on Bit Torrent, illegally sharing the files for name brand products and regulated goods. There will be black markets in everything.

In the more macro economy, the impact may even be more far-reaching. Developing nations no longer need to buy tractors from Caterpillar in order to industrialize. They will simply print the open source versions of heavy machinery, made available by the next generation of lean NGOs. If there’s not enough steel or iron to print out an excavator, they’ll just print out the equipment required to mine the ore and refine it.

For the time being, that’s the most likely bottleneck for the 3D printing revolution: the actual metals, minerals, petroleum, and organic compounds needed to fabricate stuff. The 3D era’s equivalent of ink and paper. This renewed focus on the value of raw materials over the innovative capacity to fabricate things from them, may reverse what has become known as the “resource curse,” where resource-rich nations fail to become developed or educated because they’re simply selling what’s under the ground.

Indeed, the ultimate irony of digital media’s extension to objects in the physical world is that it might reacquaint us with the fact that the only thing that’s truly scarce is the matter of creation itself. And we humans aren’t the ones who fabricated that.

Happy holidays.