I’ve been asked by a fellow teacher to comment on an article that falls broadly under the category of 3D Printing: The End Of The World As We Know It. 

The premise of this type of article is that home 3D printing will disrupt entire economies and governments. The implicit assumption is that these products are created out of thin air causing an economic black hole as traditional consumer purchasing ceases. The end times will further be ensured by unrestricted access to 3D printable items such as guns, drugs, body parts and unlicensed merchandise. 

The argument that home 3D printing will lead to the destruction of our way of life merits a measured and complete response from impartial investigative journalists of a bygone era. Instead, I will blog a few random thoughts to counter the dystopian narrative that these articles propose. 

  1. Crystal Ball: We as a species are really bad at predicting the future. We overestimate the short term changes of disruptive forces while underestimating long term impacts. The chances that any of us are correctly predicting the large scale changes to society of digital manufacturing is pretty small. 

  2. Inertia: Large scale change takes work. Society will tend to do things in the same way that it has done in the past. Forces that profit under the current set of conditions will work actively to maintain the status quo. America is a consumer culture. Even a deliberate and concerted attempt to change the manufacturing of goods will be a long, hard process. 

  3. Markets: If home 3D printing starts challenging traditional manufacturing, producers will react to create efficiencies and differentiate their products to encourage demand. Not all traditional businesses will survive competition but even under the most optimistic home 3D printing scenario new companies will rise to react to the competition. 

  4. Physics: Home 3D printing follows the laws of real-world physics they are not Star Trek style replicators. Future home manufacturing device will not be able to instantaneously convert energy to matter. Many of the extrapolations of the impact of home 3D printing is based on a printer that does not follow the physical laws of this universe. 

  5. Time: Creating physical objects takes time. Time is a major hidden cost. Assuming a device that can create a wide range of products, there simply isn’t enough time to meet the every day demands of an average American household. Imagine a weekend trip to the store to pickup a laundry basket, a few bowls and toys for the kids. These items can be purchased in under an hour. Even a 3D printer that is several orders of magnitude faster than current printers would struggle to complete the items in a few days. Our consumer culture is based on the ability to obtain almost any finished good with a short trip to a local store. 

  6. Feedstock: You need physical materials to create things. Current home 3D printers use a range of extrudable plastics. Even at the low end for the most common plastics, a cost of $10 per pound or more makes it difficult to compete on price with store bought goods. This is assuming the most basic of plastic goods. If we want multi-material objects then we will need to have the feedstock on hand. Every increase in the type of materials that can be printed requires an additional collection of raw materials in the household: spools of plastic, metal, glass, ceramic, concrete, chemicals, proteins and cells. The cost of purchasing and storing even common materials becomes cost prohibitive. 

  7. Coatings: Products in the home aren’t just created from raw materials, there are a wide assortment of specialized coatings. These coatings can be toxic, expensive and/or require extreme conditions for application. Do you want to do without rust protection, mold inhibitors, flame retardants, anti-microbial coatings, non-slip surfaces, paints and varnishes? Your home 3D printer will need to do those functions to compete with store bought goods. 

  8. Specialization: The assumption that a general purpose home device will have the same capabilities as specialized industry machinery is ridiculous. Even cheap plastic goods go through a wide range of machinery and finishing processes to create a uniform consumer good. Watch any show about the production of goods in a factory. There is always a specialized machine or process done by experts that would not be cost effective or practical to recreate at home. Maybe it is a furnace, a multi-ton press, a chemical process, an environmental factor, or an expert eye to tweak the process. Making a consumer good is always more involved and has more ways to go wrong than you would expect. Ask anyone with a 3D printer to show you the pile of failed prints. 

  9. Patents: Much of the above is assuming that consumers have access to the complete sum of human manufacturing capabilities in a home device. Patents pretty much ensure that all these capabilities will never be available in a single general purpose machine. The home 3D printing movement has been sparked by the expiration of patents for the first generation of digital manufacturing. As patents accumulate on every conceivable facet of digital manufacturing it will be harder for home 3D printers companies based on open source concepts to compete with commercial and industrial devices. 3D printing patent holders will have economic incentive to ensure that the development of home 3D printing is constrained in a way that does not compete with their commercial products. 

  10. Design: The ability to create a product cheaply does not mean that the product will be desirable. The actual cost of the physical manufacturing of a product is a very small portion of the shelf price. Design and marketing are key factors in our culture. Go back and watch Mad Men. Americans prefer name brand products over generic. We prefer the latest designs from the coolest companies. Design is a process of making choices. Most people left to their own devices will make choices that are inferior to consumer products. Do you want to research toothbrush designs to print or do you want to brush your teeth with a brush approved by 9 out of 20 dentists and got to sleep? Even access to a theoretical vast library of pirated designs won’t help. People will know that you have a 3D printed knockoff. You will know that you have a 3D printed knockoff. 

  11. Safety: Is your 3D printed items as safe a consumer good? Is it good enough for your kid? 

  12. Guns: Traditionally manufactured guns and ammunition both legal and illegal are readily available in America. The existence of a 3D printed gun does not materially change the argument either pro or con about guns in our society. 

Tales about the end of the world can make for great headlines. The real story is about the creative opportunities that home 3D printing brings for everyday people to design, invent and make.