A couple days ago, the New York Times published a post on its Bits blog by Nick Bilton about the disruptive effects 3-D printers are set to have on product design. From the post:
It won’t be long before people have a 3-D printer sitting at home alongside its old inkjet counterpart. These 3-D printers, some already costing less than a computer did in 1999, can print objects by spraying layers of plastic, metal or ceramics into shapes. People can download plans for an object, hit print, and a few minutes later have it in their hands.
The thought of being able to torrent household objects is a game changer not only in design, but also in retail, ownership and copyright, Bilton feels. Is this the death of manufacturing? The death of stores? Will refills for a 3-D printer’s jets be the only physical thing we will need to buy in the near future? In many ways it’s a chilling prospect.
We’re already seeing the deleterious effects on creativity that digital conversion of music, books, movies, etc., has wrought. It’s harder to make a living these days being creative. If it can be disseminated, it will. Money that would normally go to a creator instead never enters into the transaction. This is less of a problem for big time projects like blockbuster movies, but pirating has cut off much of the funds that smaller projects need to keep their creators out of an office.
But all that is kid stuff compared to what Bilton hinted at. The death of retail and the death of ownership, while not inherently bad things on their own, represent a fundamental shift in how we’ve ordered capitalism and western society. This shift will alter the interrelations we have that keep us fed, sheltered, and prosperous. We are a people that trade. First goods and services, then metal and paper money, then zeros and ones. That could all go away.
Once upon a time, it was pure science fiction to think that we could get whatever we wanted out of a box on a shelf. It seemed like a little bit of paradise. In the future, there would be no war, no prejudice, no injustice, and no want of either material necessities or food. It’s a compelling pastiche. Will our reality be so enlightened? I hate to be a pessimist, but war, prejudice, and injustice look like they are here to stay. And want? 3-D printers, on their face, look like a sure fire way to tackle the problems of deprivation. But before we get too far ahead, remember that these printers do not spin objects out of whole cloth. Even the most advanced 3-D printers that are realistically possible require raw materials to function.
So we’re on the cusp of a new way of life. Will 3-D printers mean the end of want? Will they mean the major economies of the world will move completely into the digital realm? Will they mean control of raw materials will pass to a small power elite? Will they result in a lack of motivation among the populace to produce anything at all for themselves? We will not know the answers for decades, but home manufacturing will change how we live more than anything that has come out of the information revolution before it.