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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?

The Desktop Manufacturing Revolution

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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