The initial question from the early developers of rapid prototyping (RP) technology (now known as 3D printing) was, “Is there a better way to prototype?” The answer became stereolithography, fused deposition modeling, and other technologies now labeled 3D printing.
That question has now shifted to, “Is there a better way to make?” And the answer here will likely be the personal 3D printer.
I have some “bones to pick” with the hyperbole being written about 3D printing technology. Let’s review some of it.
The claim: “It will eliminate traditional manufacturing.”
Reality: I doubt it, it will be another tool in the manufacturing tool box. You will still need
subtractive and molding technologies—costs will make those choices.
The claim: “It will bring about a new economy.”
Reality: It’s more a reflection of the changes going on in the economy.
The claim: “It will make individual manufacturing factories of every one of us.”
Reality: Probably not, at least I don’t think I will be making versus buying any item possible—not
until making is as efficient and cost effective as buying.
I’ve seen some beautiful designs coming from artists using 3D printers. However, I don’t think I will be paying the $400+ to acquire some of these designs, no matter how beautiful and how deserving the artist is. The audience for that type of purchase is somewhat small, say the upper “ten percenters.” Which is why mass manufacturing came about in the first place—people wanting items that were too expensive as one-offs.
3D printers more neatly fit the description of a meta-idea. A meta-idea is a concept attributed to economist Paul Romer, who defined it as the most important type of idea. A meta-idea is an idea that supports the production and transmission of other ideas.
However, this industry is so fluid right now, that predictions can only be partly accurate. With so many new types of 3D printers coming into the market, we have reached a point requiring classification and organization.
I like what Todd Grimm recently proposed. He groups the various systems into Consumer (example: MakerBot, RapMan), Personal (example: uPrint, 3D Touch), Professional, and Production class. (For news and information on personal 3D printers, check out our new category on Make Parts Fast.)
But, back to “bones to pick.” Personal 3D printers have re-opened certain questions that society will have to deal with—namely, intellectual property rights, and whether we still even need them.
Romer has commented that our economic model is changing as we come to terms with the concept that ideas can be viewed as “economic goods;” that ideas are the new currency. Thus, some are claiming that the new “commodity” in our changing economy may well be the CAD drawing. So, a number of commentators claim that engineers should simple sell their 3D CAD designs to users of 3D printers to make. The carrot is that this change will free engineers/designers to be more creative. (Huh? Just exactly how are engineers restrained in their creativity?)
In Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, he notes that various groups like to think that they clearly understand creativity as a source of economic value; that “intellectual property” is now more valuable than any kind of physical property, and that we will fiercely protect this new economic value.
It’s nice to get paid for your creativity, but this is a troublingly simplistic view of what an engineer does—just create a drawing and you’re done. Well, let’s just play devil’s advocate for a minute and ponder who would be responsible if said design fails in some way that risks human life? Will it be the designer? Will it be the maker? Did the maker alter the design and did that lead to the failure? Will the fault lie with the material chosen for the part? Will it be the unit the part was printed on? (Lawyers, line up here.)
It’s sort of ironic. Instead of large manufacturing factories employing millions, we will be the manufacturing factory, but a factory of one, which may or may not create an income stream for each of us. I’m not sure how this idea is useful, but, as I said earlier, the 3D printing industry is in flux, so stay tuned.