Edit: This article is getting a lot of attention so I’ve decided that some more background info on 3D printing is in order since I only briefly describe the technology. For more info see these TED Talks on 3D printing: 7 TED Talks on the wonder of 3D printing.
3D printing went from underground nerd-toy to “the next big thing” in just a couple of days when Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. The day after the SOTU stocks having anything remotely to do with 3D printing made a significant jump, ranging from 2-6%. A couple of days later, the web is a-buzz with 3D printing; seems that everyone wants to voice their opinion about what it is, why it matters, and what we are going to do about. I shall gladly partake in the frenzy as this has been a fascination of mine for some time (although I still don’t have a 3D printer, which kind of bums me out). But, before I start, let me just say to educators – If you haven’t already, you better start thinking about getting a 3D printer in your school and figuring out how to use it!
Essentially, 3D printing involves taking a computer generated model of an object, feeding it to a computer and having the object physically constructed by layering a material (usually some sort of plastic although some metals are used too) in the shape of the prototype model. The result is a physical replica of the computer generated model that you can pick up, use to perform some function or as a component in a larger, more complex object or machine.
3D printing has been around since the late 1990s. However, for much of that time the required equipment has been very expensive (up to 6 figure prices in US$), slow and limited to the construction of small objects. 3D printers were initially marketed for use as prototypers for objects that would be manufactured using other methods and materials. Thus, the process was often referred to as “rapid prototyping”, i.e. it was used to construct examples of designed objects to look for flaws in the design of the object before it was mass produced. It’s debatable how “rapid” the process was; it could take many hours or even days to print a very small object depending on its complexity. Nevertheless, this was considered more efficient than having to send out the model to have it constructed elsewhere using far more expensive processes and materials. The first time I saw a 3D printer at work was in the early 2000s. It took several hours to produce a ~2 inch tall bust of Aristotle, and it wasn’t even a very good replica of the original, at that. But, I was facinated by the possibilities of such a machine. I imagined what the world could be like if everyone could have one of these devices in their home – mind blown!
The home 3D printer is becoming a reality. Today, there are 3D printers available for as little as $500. And in a telling development, many of these cheap 3D printers are, in fact, manufactured using 3D printers on a per-order basis, i.e. they’re self-replicating machines! (Sort of… Not all parts are printable and the product does require manual assembly which can be a bit of a hurdle for the layperson.) However, these cheap 3D printers are significantly limited in regards to the size of objects that can be printed. But, the challenge then is to design products that can be constructed out of fairly small pieces that these printers can handle.
So, what does all of this mean? I want to talk about three different dimensions of this development; the consumer dimension, the producer dimension, and the educator dimension.
First of all, there is the matter of the dematerialization of consumer products. “Dematerialization” (or “ephemeralization” as Buckminster Fuller called it) is used to describe the way that some consumer products are being made to be delivered without the exchange of any physical object. In recent years we have seen this happen with music, video games, movies, books, photos and other products. Instead of having to go and pick up, or have delivered, a physical object when we purchase these products, we now simply download them on the Internet. 3D printing will enable the dematerialization of consumer products on a scale that we can only imagine today. Instead of purchasing physical objects we will simply purchase the computer generated model and fabricate the product ourselves. It is likely, due to the limitations of currently available 3D printers, that the first things that we will purchase in this manner will be user-serviceable replacement components for sophisticated products. For example, we could purchase the 3D model for a car part or a bicycle part, fabricate it on our home 3D printer, and install it ourselves.
Secondly, because of what I’ve described before, there are important consequences for producers of consumer goods, and thus for the future of work. As the dematerialization of products continues, producers will be far more design-oriented, and less manufacturing-oriented, than they are today. What’s more, they will have far more things to consider in their design processes than they have until now. Rather than simply thinking about how to design products that work, they will have to take into consideration the capabilities and limitations of at-home fabricators, and the skills needed by consumers to make effective use of their products, i.e. that assembly is straight forward and relatively simple. This adds a whole new dimension to the design process, especially as regards relatively to considerably complex products that use many components. These will have to be designed specifically for do-it-yourself consumers and may therefore include, not only the components and products themselves, but also technological solutions to aid in their assembly and maintenance.
Thirdly, the knowledge and skills needs of increasingly design-oriented labor markets will put pressure on educational institutions to change the way they educate future labor market participants. Educational institutions, while still expected to meet expectations in regard to general and civic education, will also be expected to prepare learners for collaborative creative work in a hyper-abundant design-based economy that we have yet to fully understand how will function.