The Desktop Manufacturing Revolution

The end of the current production-manufacturing economic model may be on the horizon. But what if nothing's ready to replace it?

Clay Shirky recently described revolutions as situations in which "...the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place." He was talking about newspapers, but the insight can apply much more broadly. Advertising, for example, seems to be going through its own revolution, with existing models falling to tatters without a clear successor waiting in the wings. Education is another example, and some would argue that a similar process is underway in the realm of international power and politics.

Shirky's observation came to mind while watching a recording of Bruce Sterling's closing keynote for the ReBoot conference last month. Late in the talk, Bruce tosses out this line: "Objects are print-outs." He goes on to discuss how to rethink one's relationship with material possessions in an increasingly precarious world, but the "objects are print-outs" line stuck with me. It encapsulates not just an attitude towards material possessions, but--in one pithy phrase--one possible shape of the next economy.

Fab This

Take a design for a simple product--an engine part, for example, or a piece of silverware, and feed it into a computer. Press "print." Out pops (for a sufficiently wide definition of "pops") a physical duplicate, made out of materials plastic, ceramic, metal -- even sugar. Press "print" again, and out comes another copy--or feed in a new design, for the next necessary object.

It may sound like a scene from a low-rent version of Star Trek, but it's real, and it's happening with increasing frequency. This process goes by a few names, but it's most commonly known as "3D Printing" (the older name, "rapid prototyping," no longer captures the range of uses, while the other alternative name, "fabbing," is a little too cyberpunk for the moment). While the process has been around since the mid-1980s, the cost of 3D printers has been dropping quickly, and now range to well under $10,000. If that still sounds like a lot of money, you're right--but don't forget, it was when laser printers dropped to this price range in the mid-1980s that the desktop publishing revolution kicked off.

Right now, most 3D printing is limited to single-material objects (as designer Sven Johnson noted on Twitter, we're now starting to see two-material 3D printers). Most systems use (often proprietary) plastics, but a few use metal "toner." The latter is turned solid by a variety of high-tech means, from sintering with lasers (for simple objects) to using high-energy electron beams to melt the metal into dense, high-strength parts.

On the near horizon, however, are systems that would allow for multiple material inputs, and those that allow the use of electroactive and electronic polymers. Although plastic electronics fall way behind traditional silicon processors when it comes to speed, they're moving into the "just good enough" category, raising the tantalizing possibility of being able to print out basic electronic products--sensors, RFID-type tags, even simple communication devices--by the middle of the next decade. And as the 3D printing systems become more sophisticated, moving closer to the realm of molecular-scale manufacturing, the potential for even more complex and powerful products available at the touch of the "print" button becomes ever greater.

The Ultimate Do-It-Yourself Technology

A sign of just how close we are coming to the "desktop manufacturing" revolution is word that comedian Jay Leno--a collector of vintage motorcycles and cars--now uses a 3D printer to produce replacement parts for his classic vehicles.

    Any antique car part can be reproduced with these machines==pieces of trim, elaborately etched and even scrolled door handles. If you have an original, you can copy it. Or you can design a replacement on the computer, and the 3D printer makes it for you. [...] If you have a part that’s worn away, or has lost a big chunk of metal, you can fill in that missing link on the computer. Then you make the part in plastic and have a machinist make a copy based on that example. Or you can do what we do—input that program into a Fadal CNC machine; it reads the dimensions and replicates an exact metal copy.

To be sure, the gear that Leno employs remains out of the price range of most of us. But it's near-certain that the cost of 3D printing will continue to plummet.

One reason why is the startlingly rapid development of the RepRap project, the open-source "replicating rapid-prototyping" system being devised at Bath University in the UK. For now, it's designed to print only polymers, but is coming close to its initial goal of being able to produce all of the plastic components of another RepRap device. The greater goal, of being able to print out all of the components of a RepRap (that is, to make it truly replicating), is still in the distance, but will probably come sooner than expected. In the meantime, the current RepRap design is just getting more precise, and more powerful.

A New Economy?

Technologies that shift production from being atom-dominated to being bit-dominated tend to follow similar trajectories. With both laser printers and, later, CD/DVD burners, the first wave of "creative destruction" came when the prices dropped to the level where the devices were affordable by small businesses; the second, bigger wave came when the prices dropped to a level affordable by general households. Now, laser printers and CD/DVD burners are just about free in a box of cereal--and, for many of us, the production and consumption of text documents and music has moved to entirely digital formats.

If 3D printing follows a similar trajectory, we may not be likely to see a massive shift to entirely digital "products" any time soon, but we could well see a shift to more local--even desktop--production. There's no guarantee, of course, that 3D printing system prices will crash in the exact same way as laser printers, or that individual households will decide that desktop manufacturing is appealing. Local manufacturing seems a good bet, however, for a variety of reasons. There's a particularly strong sustainability argument around local manufacturing, from the rising tide of "localism" philosophies (from food to media), to the ability of 3D printing to extend the useful life of manufactured goods by making new parts (as Jay Leno does for his vintage cars). The sustainability argument will become especially powerful once cheap overseas-produced goods reflect rising costs for fuel and carbon. And local manufacturing via 3D printing, even if limited to simple consumer items, has the potential to disrupt incumbent manufacturing, shipping, and retail industries.

If we do see 3D printing follow the footsteps of laser printing, however, the results could be profound. Desktop manufacturing offers the potential for the ultimate "maker" culture, where commercial products are bought off of iTunes-like online stores and printed at home, while eager hardware hackers play with design tools and open-source hardware systems to make entirely new material goods. Lurking in the background, of course, is the potential for design piracy -- what one writer termed "napster fabbing," back in the era when Napster was scary.

If we're lucky, this could happen slowly and gradually, allowing the new economic models time to solidify and new institutions to emerge; if we're less lucky, it could happen abruptly, and with great resistance on the part of those industries most under attack, so that the new systems aren't yet ready by the time the old system collapses. The first would obviously be an easier transition than the second. Any bets on which one is more likely?

The End of Days

This doesn't mean that Wal-Mart will go away any time soon, but it does mean a pretty big shift in the relationship between individuals and their material world. Most notably, it would open up the possibility that the kinds of personalized products now available to those with the right money and know-how may soon be available to everyday people. Thinking of this simply as traditional manufacturing moved from the factory to the neighborhood (or the home office) misses the larger revolution. This isn't just desktop production (figuratively or literally), it's democratized production. It will have its own intrinsic dilemmas, from liability to spam, but it will pose a powerful challenge to the status quo.

As I wrote recently about other kinds of personal augmentation technologies,

    Humans won’t be taken out of the loop—in fact, many, many more humans will have the capacity to do something that was once limited to a hermetic priesthood. [This technology] decreases the need for specialization and increases participatory complexity.

We're seeing this pattern again and again. New technologies, and the new behaviors they engender, trigger unexpected shifts in how we relate to each other. The trajectory of what we can do in concert with our tools is just getting steeper. Participatory complexity may well be the key descriptor of the 21st century--in our economies, in our politics, and in our everyday lives.

Images: Bruce Sterling - screen capture from his talk
RepRap - courtesy RepRap
Charlie Caplin - screen capture from Modern Times

(My thanks to C. Sven Johnson for his comments and suggestions.)

Read more of Jamais Cascio's Open The Future blog.

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25 Comments

  • Robin Bastien

    Interesting post. My main concern with desktop 3d printing / manufacturing would be the lack of resources to accommodate the demand. I do web design, and everyone wants to work at home doing layouts in Photoshop as their job, but that doesn't qualify them as real designers. I could see a large movement of people starting manufacturing from home that really doesn't have much quality, and the resources for the materials will be drained because of it. Anyway, cheers for the post.

    My last blog post: 10 Beautiful off-white websites

  • Mel P

    Apologies in the event I am just missing the idea, but I am not entirely seeing what's revolutionary with this technology. Supposing of which it will be a long time, if ever, before families can purchase 3D printers for as much as a CD burner costs today, really the only result from the proliferation of this particular technology is less costly produced goods. Culturally, we are very knowledgeable about this trend, that has been in place ever since mass retailing started out over a hundred years ago.

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  • David Pricely

    I also agree with you that current low price 3d printers will be mainly used by makers/professionals. . I'm specifically addressing safety. broken xbox 360. Looks like my csvenbot app is starting to exhibit signs of self-awareness again. I'm going to have to reload from a backup. metal gear solid action figures

  • Tom McBroom

    The 3D printers are amazing. I was watching the demo of it 2 weeks back on youtube & it does wonders. One can get a 3 dimensional view of their designs & clients will know exactly how the designs look like. Ofcourse it costs a bomb but it is worth every bit for those who need it.This is like bringing the virtual world to reality.

    Wireless Printer

  • Andreas Jaritz

    @sven

    Hope to see you there!

    The Fluid Forms facebook fans are the first to find out about new products, prototypes and stories...

    ...we also spread press news via rss in our newsroom

    so that's enough horn-blowing from my side ;)

    Have a great weekend!

  • c. sven johnson

    @Andreas who said "With 'design control' you're referring to the 'leaving the control about good design in the hands of professional designers, even in the age of fabbing' issue, right?"

    That depends on what you mean by "good design". For plenty of industrial designers this means many things which I consider open to individual modification. I'm specifically addressing safety. The Futurismic column to which Jamais linked presents a few scenarios of the kind which concern me, not whether consumers create stylistically questionable objects.

    Would enjoy updates. I'll assume you're doing this on your blog and will surf through to be kept up-to-date.

  • Andreas Jaritz

    @Sven:

    1) Desktop Factory e.a.:
    Desktop Factory stuck, absolutely right, Sven. We followed their development very close and thought (due to their own PR???) they where close to go to market at the beginning of the year. Strange was the fact that you couldn't get information about the materials Desktop Factories machine would use in the end...and what happened next (...running out of funding, 2 times?) was a step backwards in 3d printing.

    I also agree with you that current low price 3d printers will be mainly used by makers/professionals (as I also pointed out here: http://fluidforms.eu/blog/2009...

    2) morphable materials and design control:
    With "design control" you're referring to the "leaving the control about good design in the hands of professional designers, even in the age of fabbing" issue, right? At Fluid Forms our basis of "design-control" is defined by the so called design-space or what Frank Piller e.a. call the solution-space for mass customization (read more about that here: http://mass-customization.blog... and here: http://fluidforms.eu/blog/2009...

    3) fabbing & jewelry: there are great opportunities indeed...I recently held the first version of a new fabbed Fluid Forms product in my hands -> pretty good quality. If you like, I keep you uptdated!

    Cheers and have a great day!

  • Jamais Cascio

    Hmm. Looks like my csvenbot app is starting to exhibit signs of self-awareness again. I'm going to have to reload from a backup.

  • c. sven johnson

    @Harry who said: "Objects are printouts. Sounds like an oxymoron."

    That depends on how you think of "printouts". Some printing processes (e.g. flexography) can include the making of molds. Just like your plastic computer housing.

    The act of printing either/and/or deposits or removes material; from printing plates which trap ink in recesses to reverse graffiti. Addition and subtraction of material is an equally valid consideration. In fact, this is reflected in a term which Jamais did not include in the above article: "additive fabrication". There are even "term wars" including it ( http://mass-customization.blog... ). The inverse is, of course, "subtractive fabrication". The former deposits or solidifies material as necessary (e.g. stereolithography, fused deposition, aso) while the very traditional latter removes material as necessary (e.g. CNC machines, lathes, aso).

    As it turns out, your plastic computer housing was almost certainly injection molded using a steel tool... which, as it turns out, was cut in printer-like fashion on a CNC; back and forth like a print head. Not too far removed from the flexography platemaking process I mentioned.

    As to "What is virtual? what is real?", I'll leave that to the Philosophy 101 people. Suffice it to say, I don't differentiate. If I perceive it, it's as "real" to me as it is virtual. After all, my senses are little more than electrical stimuli. For all I know, you're just a figment of my imagination.

  • Harry Otsuji

    Objects are printouts. Sounds like an oxymoron. What is virtual? what is real? Is the computer I'm using to type or write this an object or a printout? Or both? Or what?

    Just asking.

    Faithfully yours,

    /s/ Harry H.Otsuji

  • Jamais Cascio

    Sven, thanks for weighing in. As should be obvious, Sven is one of the leading thinkers on the implications of this stuff; I've learned quite a bit from him over the years.

  • c. sven johnson

    I was just reminded of this by a new Twitter follower: Wired's Chris Anderson blog entry "A rocket launcher of our own" - http://www.thelongtail.com/the...

    I wrote/demonstrated the original not to show it could be done (I wasn't aware people *didn't* know); I wrote it because of the potential impact to our current marketing/manufacturing business models; a response to Seth Godin. It's very much about intellectual property. In other blog entries and comments on other blogs, I've explained how small toy manufacturers could use the technique to "rip" designs from online games/virtual worlds and turn them into suitable CAD files as I did with this game object.

    Anyway, I'm @reBang on Twitter, for anyone interested. I'll shut up now.

  • c. sven johnson

    @Andreas who said "I would love to read your comments on copyright worries..."

    I've been heavily focused on the IP issues in this context for the better part of the last decade and frequently write on the topic. Thus, you might find this of interest:

    "The Looming Dark Horizon: When the IP Mess Hits Industrial Design & Co." - http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1400 (lots of links in this one)

  • c. sven johnson

    @Christopher who said "I predict the first mass-use of this technology will be to make personal adornment items, possibly with embedded electronics."

    In 2006, I was discussing setting up an online fabbing service with Mashable founder Pete Cashmore. Our major point of contention was his focus on game avatars and mine on jewelry. Obviously the game avatars are doing well in limited circles, but I still stand by and agree with you on this; the profit margins and small build size for fashion accessories make it a compelling market for this technology.

  • c. sven johnson

    @Andreas who said "3d printers are already available for under 5000 Dollars"

    If you're referring specifically to the Desktop Factory, it's not available and may not be as the company has run into funding issues last I recall.

    There are a couple of very low-cost 3D printers, but they are the Altair and arguably more suitable for professional-level users and not average consumers. In fact, the delays and problems with the Desktop Factory were apparently a consequence of an initial design not taking into account an "average consumer" who would not treat the device as delicately as a dedicated technician.

    Also, regarding Ponoko, the more recent news regarding their efforts to become a gateway for other, localized 3D fab vendors is, in my opinion, bigger news. This is something I'd given considerable thought to a few years ago. It's a good move for them, but I'm wary of all gateways.

  • c. sven johnson

    @Michael who said "the only real consequence of the proliferation of this technology is cheaper manufactured goods"

    While I tend to agree, I'm not sure this is the only real consequence, nor the one which is of interest in the context of Jamais' piece.

    During the Superstruct massive online forecasting effort, I created a fictional product called a Turtlcam. I wrote about it and what I call "hybrid manufacturing" in a Futurismic "Future Imperfect" column which you might find interesting: http://futurismic.com/2008/10/...

    By the way, the entire Superstruct effort was a wonderful exercise for industrial design. It was a shame so few/almost no IDers participated.

  • c. sven johnson

    @Dominic who said "there is no reason that the design cannot keep evolving, or become differentiated based on the interests and values of various niches."

    You might find this of interest: http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1241

    "imagine that there was one virtual Blackberry that was connected to all the physical versions so that as people were using their devices, their interaction with the user interface was tracked: how many times a button was used, how much pressure was applied to the buttons, aso (this should sound similar but inverted to the kirkyan weapon example I posted recently - http://blog.rebang.com/?p=998 ). By mapping user interaction from numerous sources, a more efficient interface might be developed which could then be used to automatically modify the CAD model. That updated geometry serves as the 3D template for a new version; an evolving product that is mass-produced."

    I've also written about products which, through morphable materials, change their geometry to suit the individual; so there are a range of options and a variety of "design control" settings to ensure things don't spin freely out of control.

    Regarding open source hardware, I've had some early conversations with the group (begun here: http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1157 ), and found myself a lone (industrial design) voice raising issues regarding non-electronic hardware. At the time - and probably still - the open hardware initiative has focused its attention on electronic hardware. A mistake, in my opinion. The group is becoming increasingly active on Twitter, so perhaps the conversation will broaden. Please join in.

  • Christopher Gosnell

    My main worry about adopting this technology will be on two fronts:
    1) IP laws on designs and
    2) Materials used for manufacture

    Either input stream for the 3D printer can be 'choked off' intentionally by those who will make money doing so.

    Liability is also a big issue, but if Software can get away with EULAs that basically say the software does not do anything, maybe the same can be done for digital models.

    The more I tend to think about it though, I look at major parts of my house and note how it will change if the things I need at the time could be 'fabbed' for one time use and then recycled again. the diswasher could be replaced with a fabber / recycler. and most of the kitchen cabinets that now store plates and pots, silverware and cups, would not be needed.

    In the garage, tools like wrenches, screwdrivers, etc... would not be needed to be kept, and you would always have the correct size tool.

    The most exciting prospect for me, is to see how someone (like my young son or daughter) will design something when manufacturing methods do not need considered. For example, if you needed a simple gearbox to transition power between two shafts at right angles, the design naturally looks like a box, because that is what can be machined easily. In the 3Dfabbing world though the result may very well look like a pair of bushings connected with a series of spiderweb like structures. Something that may be logical and conservative with materials, but not readily machinable in the classic sense.

    I predict the first mass-use of this technology will be to make personal adornment items, possibly with embedded electronics.