How the zeal about 3D printing emerged and why that's significant
Given the financial shenanigans since the credit crunch of 2008, a revival of American interest in manufacturing, as a kind of ethical alternative to financial services, should be no surprise. Also, efforts to "reshore" manufacturing from Asia back to the US are one area of common ground in American politics.
The average cost of a 3D printer as a product, both for use in industry and for use at a more residential scale, has declined enough in recent years for optimism about its potential to appear more than a little justified. Hobbyist or entry-level printers now retail for as little as $1000; professional ones for as little as $10,000. There has been no democratisation of 3D printing, that’s for sure; but, like the PC of old, it has got cheaper, and therefore more accessible.
A desire to rebalance the economy, make it more resilient in the face of international pressures and take advantage of cheapened, sophisticated machinery: these three factors have ensured that those who evangelise for 3D printing today are a little bit more than just a new generation of dot.com youth (late-1990s) or social-media youth (mid-2000s) with a peculiar fascination for real-world manufacturing.
The Printrbot Jr: the ultimate budget 3D output machine at $449 (£280)
At the bottom, 3D printing buffs seek economic revival in small firms, firms which, in Anderson’s view, are job-creating (unlike conventional manufacturing), both small and global, both artisanal and innovative, and both high-tech and low-cost. Those who are over-passionate about 3D printing are really just making a misguided, right-on, petit-bourgeois attempt to reform capitalism by sector – toward the tangible and moral certainties of manufacturing, rather than the caprice of the banks. On the world economy, as well, mania for 3D printing displays a strong bent toward protectionism, import substitution and national economic independence.
That’s why, in his State of the Union address on 13 February 2013, President Barack Obama announced not only that 3D printing had "the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything", but also that he wanted to add another 14 "manufacturing hubs" to the $30m National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute that he set up in Youngstown, Ohio, last year. His purpose? To "guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America".
In the case of American boosters of 3D printing, an autarchic vision of the American economy coincides with an autarchic vision of the American home. This should not blind us to the considerable achievements already made by 3D printers when they have been used by multinational corporations; but it certainly should give pause to anyone hoping that household-based 3D printing by adults is going to take the world by storm. Nevertheless, the appeal of 3D goes beyond a few American homes and garages, and beyond the multinational firm. Politically, the appeal is greatest among the world’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – always, for capitalism, the dominant source of employment, and always hailed as a major source of innovation.
It is not just Anderson and Obama in America who favour 3D printing. In the UK, the Lib-Con government has belatedly begun to talk it up, too. David Willetts, minister for universities and science at the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, has linked advanced materials, one of his own preferred "eight great technologies", to 3D printing, and in October 2012 went so far as to announce all of £7m ($10.5m) being made available for innovation in 3D.
The rational side of 3D printing
To his credit, Chris Anderson knows that conventional automation is here to stay. In Makers, he observes that "it’s the only way large-scale manufacturing can work in rich countries". What can change, he believes, is the role of SMEs, which can, he says, "reinvent manufacturing".
This is to get things round the wrong way. In one of the few reports to contain a balanced assessment of the limitations of 3D printing, the auditors and consultants Deloitte reported in early 2012 that sales of both consumer and commercial versions of 3D printers were unlikely to reach $200m that year, and that most revenue would likely come not from consumers, but from the business-to-business (B2B) market.
The figure of $200m sounds small, and could well be a big underestimate. Yet either way, the difference 3D printers will make is likely to be biggest among large firms – including firms that can build whole houses with 3D printing techniques.
The future of 3D printing is already written. Just look at 2D printing and replicate.
So at the moment most people will look at the prices and go "No chance". Few people are prepared to spend £2000 on a decent one, the budget ones look too fiddly for the masses.
So the price will fall to £200 and you'll spend a small fortune on supplies instead. So you'll get a small spool of plastic cord, but replacing it will cost you £300.
Re: Ignoring the speed...
Possibly, in the same sense that the Wright brothers were heading towards the concept of warp drive.
> My Whirlpool tumble-dryer had a small plastic door latch that melted, and their website very efficiently charged me £18 for a replacement.
But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR owned and licensed by Whirlpool so the creation of blueprints to replicate these will be an offence punishable by fines of ~$20K+ per infringement. You could redesign the shape of the handle, naturally, but being able to fit it to the door will require licensing of the right IPR.
Extremely Loud BAH!
Yeah, this is the way to report on a technology still in its infancy.
Use comments from academics and fellow journalists (who like to coin three-dollar words to make ordinary concepts sound more clixby) and politicians (and their catspaws, government agencies) who don't know the difference between star trek and real life.
This is my view. Imagine a time when this technology has moved out of the garage and into the home. Can we find an analogy...sorry I can't. Imagine you drive a classic car, say a Thunderbird or a TR3, and you break a tail light filter. Imagine being able to order the pattern off the web and buy a kit of the raw materials which your handy-dandy universal fabricator (rather optimistically named by some large corporation) will, before your very eyes, work up a replacement for you.
Not as exciting or controversial as "me build gun in garage!" but that is where the future will bring us, in good time.
All the rubbishing of hyperbole cooked up by fellow journalists is, to be honest, a bit masturbatory. Of course the hobbyists are keen. Did you ever try talking to someone who makes and flies model aircraft? That doesn't mean the technology won't live up to the hype given enough time.
I'll finish up by saying that I started my working life in a machine tool manufacturing plant in the UK where we made hydraulic, multi-spindle machines of great quality. What management refused to believe was that the new Japanese machines would steal our market from under our noses. After all, theirs were single spindle, made of plastic rather than iron and steel and were controlled by these new-fangled "microprocessors", which were not durable in those days. Do I have to spell out how that ended? The road where the factory used to stand is still named for the company. I doubt anyone who lives nearby knows that, though. The factory was history before most of them started school.
"But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR owned and licensed by Whirlpool "
Well, if I might (uncharacteristically) offer a glass half full thought for you both:
The chances of a home 3D printer being able to turn out a component of the accuracy and strength to replace the carefully designed and made door catch on a machine is in my view slim, and will remain so, because you won't be inclined to maintain separate supplies of powdered metal, polystyrene, polycarbonate, ABS etc etc. That means we won't see the emergence of options like buying the digital pattern to print at home. But where 3D printing might help is that if the makers can print parts using a proper professional tool that uses the original design and the right type of plastic (or whatever) then this might revolutionise the world of spare parts, since other than for high volume parts you'd not make and warehouse components, significantly reducing your overall spares cost base (much of which is inventory management, warehousing, and working capital).
Of course, lower production costs won't necessarily stop the makers pricing the parts at extortionate costs, as anybody who buys spares for Panasonic breadmakers will know, but there's some companies who are very good for spares (Bosch, Makita, come to mind in my experience).