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Weekend freedom question a few days late (or a few days early depending on how you look at it): The ultimate impact of 3D printing

A friend and I got to talking about the deeper implications of Cody Wilson’s “alarming” achievement (which, naturally, has already been trumped and will soon be trump-trump-trump-trumped ad infinitum).

My friend said that the real achievements will be in 3D-printed firing mechanisms and make-at-home-and-throw-away magazines. (Perhaps he’ll come here and give a more thorough explanation than I just did.)

As far as firearms go, that may be correct. But he got me thinking about the broader, long-term implications of 3D printing. Cory Doctorow speculated about that clear back in 2006 in his short story “Printcrime.” (Amazing foresight there, CD.)

So the question for today is: Will 3D printing do for physical objects what the Internet has done for communications? To wit: What will happen to patents and trademarks? Will this lead to a vast decentralization (right down to home-workshop level) of manufacturing of everything from toasters to automobiles? How will governments and mega-corps fight against the technology (as you know they will)? Will there be a huge burst of creativity as high-tech “tinkerers” get their hands on ever-more-affordable printers and open-source plans? Will innovators get screwed over by opportunists? Will there be greater prosperity as the price of thousands of objects drops? Or higher prices and political repression? What products will be most changed? Where will we be with this five years from now? Ten? Twenty-five?


  1. Bear
    Bear May 22, 2013 4:27 am

    Bearing in mind that this is the rough equivalent of asking Morse what effect a fiber optics-based Internet will have on the world…

    Yeah, things will change. Eventually. When a new technology is invented. The current generation of 3D printers, whether they’re $1K ABS-squirting home models or $100K laser-based sintered metal industrial gadgets, do one thing: they apply layers of homogenous materials. Period. You can make shapes. Shapes are good. Shapes can be D&D figurines, disposable pistols, jet engine turbines, or race car engine blocks.

    But they aren’t toasters. They aren’t cell phones. Actually, when you’re talking about Liberators printed on ABS machine, they aren’t even complete pistols. Because they’re printed from homogenous materials, sans metallic firing pin.

    If you want something other than an inert shape, something that controls electrons, you need a new technology that does not yet exist. If we survive — and somehow miss the societal collapse that government seems determined to inflict — I think we’ll have that technology. Eventually. It’s a technology that will manipulate stores of dozens of materials and elements. It will lay them down at the molecular and atomic scale. It won’t be anything resembling a 3D ABS or metal powder printer. It probably will look a lot like a spreighformer (Henry Martyn/Bretta Martyn, LNS).

    Consider the toaster. A simple gadget. A box that makes things hot. Now squirt one out. The shell is easy; any existing ABS machine could do that. But how many folks know how those heating elements work? Nichrome wire with amusing temperature/resistance characteristics. So in addition to the ABS plastic for the shell, your machine needs to squirt and intermix nickel and chrome. Might as well add in the copper reservoir now, too, since you need that for the power cord. And unless you want to manually monitor your toast’s progress, you’ll need a bimetallic temperature sensor; more elements to squirt. If you want a fancy toaster that monitors the color of your toast, now you need a basic optical sensor (a cheap light meter, really). Which probably means you’ll need to add more reservoirs for carbon (to build the resistors in the light sensor circuit), silicon, more doping materials (for the transistor), possibly some tantalum for capacitors…

    Whoa. All this for a toaster?

    Now let’s build a cell phone. Start by looking back at the toaster, specifically the light sensor transistor. Now build several million of those. Only you’ll need to add germanium to keep voltages down. Gold for corrosion resistant contacts, carbon and hydrogen for plastics. A bit of aluminum. Oh! And don’t forget the lithium for the battery. Careful with that!.

    Please remember that you won’t actually be squeezing all that stuff out of a ink jet head, with an accuracy of a a hundredth of a millimeter. You’ll be laying tracks at the nanometer scale. Over and over and over [repeat several million times]. Just to build a CPU. Before you ever get to the rest of the phone.

    Seriously, wander Wikipedia for a while just to learn _what_ machine are used to make batteries, ICs… _wire_. Then figure to spreigh a cell phone at home you need a desktop printer that will sub for _all_ of those. Cost effectively. With something less than _years_ between the time you press the button and the phone pops out.

    We’ll get there. Eventually. Possibly even soon. But whatever it is won’t be a 3D printer.

    And you’ll still need materials to stock it. No doubt DHS will discover an emergency need for “training materials” that will restrict availability of stocks for civilians.

  2. Jim B.
    Jim B. May 22, 2013 4:36 am

    I agree that right now the technology isn’t quite “there” yet. However if you know what you are doing then you have quite an amount of freedom than you had before. Especially if you combine a 3D printer with a forge where you can melt metal and use a 3D print as a lost cast mold to form metal parts.

    This would hopefully get people excited about learning what goes into a product, that they can actually make.

  3. Bear
    Bear May 22, 2013 4:44 am

    For those who noticed that I never answered Claire’s real question…

    What effect will this have on society?

    What effect _won’t_ it have? I’ll cheat and refer to you to two sets of fictional accounts.

    Start with George O. Smith’s “The Complete Venus Equilateral” for his matter transmitter/replicator stories. Yes, _matter transmitter_; because that’s what you’ll have invented. Remember that someone still has to provide power and raw materials. Remember that that technology matures. In his last replicator tale, Smith addresses what happens when can “print” living bodies. _Humans_. Live humans, complete with all the memories, fears, and motivations of the original.

    Then read James P. Hogan’s “Martian Knightlife” (‘His Own Worst Enemy’). Will you step into a “matter transmitter” to travel from Earth to Ceres? If it means photocopying yourself? And committing suicide by plasma disintegrations and emailing the _file_ to Ceres? Is it live, or is it Memorex? Do you have a soul? Does the soul accompany your vaporized body to [insert afterlife of your choice] or does it tag along with the email? Is a soul something separate, or it is defined by the data that defines your corporeal existence?

    What if the government files an NSL to copy your email… you and all? If they waterboard and otherwise torture (even unto death) a _copy_ of you for information, does that count?

  4. Pat
    Pat May 22, 2013 5:00 am

    I’m more optimistic…

    To answer the first (and third) questions – YES! I don’t know where we’ll be in 5 – 10 – 25 years, but it does sound like potential for rampant inventiveness.

    There are so many plans and schematics on the internet and in archives that it will be impossible to hold back the individual mind that wants something bad enough. Inventions (for both the printing machinery, and the item to be print-made) could appear – and spread – so fast that the corporate-political world cannot pass enough laws to stop them. It could be a second Industrial Revolution, on an anarchical level, which may well be the “straw” that will break the tyrants’ backs, and open the way to freedom at last.

    Just as ebooks and self-publishing have upset the publishing field, 3D printing will upset the manufacturing business. And it will certainly throw the legal system into a quandary.

    As for opportunists, they are always hanging around; the solution may be to eliminate them “the old-fashioned way”, one at a time, as in the Wild West. At the very least, opportunists are part of the status quo – they can’t think for themselves – so will be left behind as fast as another product can be manufactured to take its place.

    It could possibly rearrange the social structure of societies as well. There will be no room for “keeping up with the Joneses” because too many individual choices will be available, _ergo_ *everyone* will be a Jones, and every item will be cheap enough and distinctive enough that people will finally live their own lives instead of trying to emulate others.

    The potential to reach “The Probability Broach” may have raised its head in our own world.

  5. Bear
    Bear May 22, 2013 5:00 am

    Oh, heck. Let’s go all out. Let’s talk… _copyright_.

    People are already worrying about who “owns” the “copyright” on our genes. Who owns the copyright on _you_? Since I’m already throwing out SF references, see my own “Copyright” (in “The Anarchy Belt”, free download on my web site).

    What do you do with copyright infringers? With pirated _copies_… of _you_?

    Remember, researches are already developing 3D printers to produce living tissue. So far, it’s small stuff for transplants.

    So far.

  6. Old Printer
    Old Printer May 22, 2013 5:25 am

    Investment casting models are practical, not much else.

  7. ILTim
    ILTim May 22, 2013 7:55 am

    I think the above posts about integrating many material types will be a major hurdle to opening up the possibility of more ‘finished’ products coming off retail 3d printers.

    There will have to be a mass-demand development to drive 3d printing into a much larger market than its at currently.

    If you’ve ever held a 3d printed part, or a prototype kind of part made in a 3d printed mold, then you probably have a feel for the quality level and mechanical integrity of these parts. Walk around your house and think about what things you see which could be replaced by this type of part? Forget about shiny glossy finishes.

    Milk glass used to be a common material for consumer goods. Bakelite enjoyed some serious market share once upon a time. Wood was used in the past on more consumer products (handles, etc – you don’t see this anymore). Zinc cast, injection molded plastics with various materials being in vogue. These material transitions have all affected the design of products. Moving to 3d printing will too, except you won’t see it in stores because mass-production still favors injection molding.

  8. Laird
    Laird May 22, 2013 8:14 am

    If we’re going to look to science fiction to extrapolate what effect 3D printers will have on society, check out Damon Knight’s novel “A for Anything” ( Basically, his thesis is that with any physical thing being available at the push of a button the only value is in human labor. The result is essentially a feudal society with a few ruling families and everyone else being serfs/slaves.

  9. Bear
    Bear May 22, 2013 8:50 am

    I offered SF as a means of getting people to consider possibilities. Predicting the future in real life is tough, because people can choose lots of different possibilities, and those choices usually are not rational (look at any presidential popularity contest).

    If Knight had so desired, he could as easily depicted a world in which the ruling families were those who ran the power plants that keep the replicators running. Or the handful of creative people who can design new products for the replicators. Or it could be a Hogan/Kropotkinesque anarchism (Voyage From Yesteryear; no replicators, but essentially unlimited resources).

    In our real world, we can’t predict what changes replicators would bring because we don’t even know what a replicator might be.

    It’s good to consider possibilities so you’ll have a sheath of choices ready to choose from when something does roll around. But hard decisions and set policies? Decisions and policies about what? For all we know, economies of scale will make replicators nothing expensive toys for the idle rich, producing disposable gadgets they could buy cheaper and faster at Wally World, if they only deigned to associate with the hoi polloi.

  10. Bear
    Bear May 22, 2013 9:06 am

    I’ll point out something else that makes “prediction” virtually impossible.

    Short of space aliens stopping by and accidentally leaving a replicator behind, we aren’t going to get that technology in isolation. It will come from a progression of discoveries, innovations, and development. Even Smith’s VE replicators derived from preexisting fictional gadgets: “Power tubes” that gave society cheap interplanetary travel, “power beams” that gave them cheap broadcast power, and faster-than-light communications; all of which deriving from the discovery of an entire energy spectrum previously unknown. All of those, in turn, changed society long before replicators came on the scene.

    In the real world, computers and the Internet didn’t spring forth, complete, from some guy’s head one day. There were mechanical calculators. Artificially produced electricity. Vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, fiber optics… all of which had their own impact long before the Internet allowed freelance videographers to track police misconduct with recordings from handheld wireless video phones. Or LOLCats. Or Internet pr0n. Or email.

  11. Pat
    Pat May 22, 2013 10:31 am

    “Short of space aliens stopping by and accidentally leaving a replicator behind, we aren’t going to get that technology in isolation. *It will come from a progression of discoveries, innovations, and development.*” [My emphasis]

    Exactly … and the potential is out there. See as an example.

    This next generation “gets it”, and I don’t think they’re going to lie down and roll over because some ‘institution’ (society, religion, education, or government) says You Can’t. They know too much, and they know better.

  12. Bear
    Bear May 22, 2013 11:52 am

    Miss Khare is who we need. And people like her.

    If someone has a link to a more detailed description of her device, I’d like to see specs. That article is pretty devoid of useful information. It sounds like she made a supercapacitor, something that’s been around for quite a while. And despite the aticle title and hype, she hasn’t made a “cell phone charger”; that’s just a possible future application. The part that really impresses me is the flexibility; that’s tougher than most people may realize. I suspect that basic physics will mean a rigid matrix battery will always have more capacity than a flex battery of the same size, but a flexible battery has a lot of applications in wearable electronics and medical sensors. And, no doubt, plenty of things we haven’t thought of yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miss Khare is one of the people who thinks them up… and makes them.

  13. Jorge
    Jorge May 22, 2013 8:45 pm

    One big change that will occur is in the “developing” world. In most of these countries the cost of imported goods, which means most manufactured goods is very high due to tariffs and high VAT/sales taxes. In most of these countries tax evasion is a way of life.

    Combine these two with cheap local 3D printing and people will have far greater access to goods. They will be much better off and much wealthier.

    There will not be any deep discussion about patents and copyrights. People will just print. I predict that as that as this technology matures you will start to see small “3D print shops” just as you see a lot of small copy shops.

    In Latin America and South East Asia you will be able to walk into these shops and walk out with just about anything for a bit more than the cost of materials. The governments will turn a blind eye to this activity, regardless of the laws on the books, just like they do today with the copy shops, where you can get aynthig photocopied for a nominal fee.

    This will change the world, and it will do so fairly quicky.

  14. Pat
    Pat May 23, 2013 9:07 am

    “We can put together a complete copy of a body part on the 3-D printer within a day,” Green said. “So we can make something very specific for a patient very quickly.”

    “This gives us the opportunity to really do patient-specific and individualized medicine,” Hollister said. “So we don’t have to do one-size-fits-all. But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

    And I can imagine a world where individualized _everything_ might be the modus operandi. Only wish I could be around to see it.

  15. Watson
    Watson May 23, 2013 9:11 am

    A couple of aspects of 3d printing or even the almost-mythical ‘matter compiler’:

    Social/Welfare spending-
    Would this technology affect how society tries to ‘care’ for the underpriveleged & downtrodden? Might this be something palatable to right-leaning libertarian types? Public printers (or compliers) that have databases of items classified as ‘free’, not unlike the old food classifications for people receiving food stamps. Have access to basic shelter, clothing, gadgets as well as some type of food (pink sludge?). Why might it appeal to libertarians? It would remove the necessity of massive bureaucratic apparatus, cutting costs etc. Could be a “compromise” between right & left. Could be sponsored & subsidized by ultra-rich, not unlike college or hospital grants.

    Tricky subject and still a ways down the road. AI or at least pseudo-AI that looks at your object files and makes an educated guess as to whether some infringement is occurring. Depending on level of sophistication might be able to haggle or convince AI that dire circumstances necessitate ‘breaking the seal’ on object files and printing/modifying beyond your contractual limit.

    Deeeeep Spaaaace-
    Advanced printing technology loaded up onto space probes bound for other stars. Scan the DNA, store it and print embryos at the other end. Not unlike the scenario in _Voyage from Yesteryear_ (great libertarian/anarchist themed scifi BTW) – colony ship is nothing more than a roboticized hauler that cranks out children at the end of the voyage.

    I like the ideas put out by Jorge previously in the thread–notion of disseminating new technology simply by broadcasting the designs & specs. Collapse the gap between 1st & 3rd world even further, no one using old phones, computers, fashions — just print out the latest design of TODAY. When you get home toss it into a recycler.

    EDIT: I see Bear already nailed _Voyage from Yesteryear_ DOH!

  16. Woody
    Woody May 23, 2013 10:19 am

    I’m optimistic about the future of 3D printing. I won’t make any predictions about what it will look like or morph into as the years progress. In my former life as a technology service guy I saw a lot of impossible things become possible and commonplace. 3D printing is not likely to mature in the time I have left so I leave it to others to decide its success or failure.

    I am solidly in Arthur C Clarke’s camp.
    “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

  17. s
    s May 23, 2013 11:32 am

    Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson is a must-read for this topic. Stephenson is smart, does his homework, and writes well.

  18. Jacques
    Jacques May 23, 2013 12:27 pm

    Of course, there are at this moment the government sociopaths thinking how to use this new technology for “military” purposes. Must be a newer, cooler, more efficient way to destroy human life somehow in this equation!

  19. JWG
    JWG May 23, 2013 5:13 pm

    The impact upon me personally has been a rekindling in my interest in machining and fabrication. If these people can make a firearm from plastic, then it is possible for me to make one in steel and wood.

  20. John
    John May 26, 2013 7:46 am

    Reminds me of one of Cory Doctorow’s short stories, Printcrime. After release from jail for crimes with his printer, protagonist gets smart and starts printing printers.
    That’s where we need to go. 🙂

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