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Drilling into 3D printing: Gimmick, revolution or spooks' nightmare?

Top prof sorts the hype from the science for El Reg

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From vehicles to printable flesh, there are good uses of 3D printing

Both the hyping up and the fear of 3D printing are species of technological determinism – of a world view in which it is technology that independently creates society, rather than the other way round. Variously, commentators have thought that robots, IT, biotechnology and now digital fabrication are the ultimate "drivers" of the future. All have been mistaken.

This article cannot go into today’s debate about whether innovation is speeding up or slowing down. However, in their rather fatalistic conceptions, both "optimists" and "pessimists" in that debate miss the point that innovation’s pace depends on society’s confidence, priorities and wherewithal.

One of the major points in Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation is that the innovatory first and second industrial revolutions (roughly 1733-1800 and 1880-1918) coincided with "new hopes in the possibility and necessity of progress". The West sorely lacks these hopes today – and that fact can only impair the prospects for really taking advantage of 3D printing, just as much as it will slow moves toward driverless cars, fusion power and the human exploration of Mars.

That’s a pity, because 3D printing and the technologies near it have a great deal to recommend them. In Manitoba, Canada, a tiny hybrid electric three-wheeler vehicle has had its whole body made by a 3D printer – even if the process took all of three months. At Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, scientists hope to use stem cells as the material with which to make tissues and organs through 3D printing.

In the US and South Africa, the designers of Robohand, an artificial hand, have published the software to have it made by MakerBot 3D printers. The designers have already successfully given Liam, a five-year old boy without a hand, a finalised working version of the prosthetic hand – one that should be easy to scale up and reprint for Liam as he grows up.

These achievements of 3D printing are not in question. But the application of 3D printing will not be helped by its aficionados getting evangelical about it.

From Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) through to a succession of later labour and farmers’ movements, anti-monopoly republicanism, cooperative individualism and various forms of "producer ideology" were often salient in American thought and deed. As the US labour historian Eric Foner also points out in his book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: "Throughout the 19th century, the 'small producer ideology', resting on such tenets as equal citizenship, pride in craft, and the benefits of economic autonomy, underpinned a widespread hostility to wage labor, as well as to “non-producers” who prospered from the labor of others. The ideology of free labor would emerge, in part, from this vision of America as a producer’s republic.’

Over the nineteenth century, many movements in the US expressed their own kind of fondness for local, often engineering-based solutions separate from the city, the state and big capital. It is true that the term "republicanism" is too elastic to have much value as a factor in American history. However from Ben Franklin onward, America, a country largely created anew, has always treated technology and engineering with more than a little misty-eyed affection.

In one sense this affection, and its display around 3D printers, is a good thing, given all the hostility that accompanies mankind’s technical achievements nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s entirely wrong to try to represent 3D printing as any kind of Brave New World. The emancipation of mankind rests not just upon machines, but also, and more, upon what mankind chooses to do with them. ®

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and co-author of Energise: a future for energy innovation. Paul Reeves and Martin Stevens contributed research to this article. This essay was first published in the February edition of Spiked Plus.

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