Like many new technologies before it, 3D printing is being lauded as a world changer while also being regarded with fear. On the one hand, people from the President of the United States on down have sung its praises. On the other hand, people have expressed concerns about the inevitable negative consequences of the technology. It seems worthwhile to take a brief look at this subject.
A 3D printer works by repeatedly laying down a thin layer of material in order to build an object. Such printers most commonly work with plastics, but there are those that work with other materials (including food).
In general, there are two main economic advantages to 3D printing. The first is that a 3D printer effectively eliminates the labor costs in assembling an object, although there can still be an operator cost. If 3D printing develops into a full industry, it could have a significant impact on employment demographics. This is, of course, nothing new-each significant advance in manufacturing technology changed the world.
The second is that a 3D printer is essentially a universal construction machine. That is, within the limits of its size and materials it can assemble almost any object. For example, the same 3D printer could make a plastic dragon miniature, a plastic prosthetic foot for a duck, a plastic cover for a pool drain, a drinking cup and so on. This is what makes 3D printing rather revolutionary.
There seem to be three main categories of people who will take advantage of this capacity. The first category is the hobbyist. This sort of person will most likely buy a fairly small 3D printer and use it in their existing hobby. For example, gamers will use them to make miniatures, dice, and other gaming stuff. As another example, a person who dabbles in hand crafting knick-knacks might use a 3D printer to mass produce her designs in order to sell them. As a third example, a person who is a hardcore DIY person might get a printer so she can manufacture her own replacement parts on the spot as needed.
As has happened before, there will be an initial surge in purchases followed by many people realizing that they really do not have an ongoing use for a hobby printer. before that happens, tons of plastic crap will be made-so I hope that the plastic used will be recyclable. However, there will be people who will find their 3D printers so useful or entertaining that they will permanently adopt the technology. Once the price drops, I will most likely fall into that category.
The second category consists of people who own small businesses, especially shops that sell plastic junk already and repair/manufacturing shops that need specialized parts. Being able to manufacture plastic junk to sell could very well increase the profits for a store-unless, of course, people elect to print their own plastic crap at home. Small repair/manufacturing shops will probably invest in more robust 3D printers to replace some of their more specialized equipment. This could impact the companies that previously supplied parts and specialized equipment. After all, if shops can just print their own parts, they would have less reason to buy them from a supplier.
The third category consists of the big manufacturers. They will, obviously enough, use industrial grade 3D printers to make stuff to sell to people. This will impact the economy in various ways, especially if 3D printing allows a reduction in labor costs. While some folks have spoken about how people will print their own cars, refrigerators and other large items, it seems rather unlikely that this will happen. After all, a 3D printer capable of making such items would be rather large and expensive and it seems unlikely that most people would incur the expense of buying a machine that they would only use very rarely. But, perhaps someday that will change.
In addition to the economic changes that 3D printing will create, there are also moral concerns. In an earlier post I addressed the concerns about using 3D printers to create weapons. There is also the moral (and legal) concern that 3D printers will enable people to “steal” objects in an new way, namely printing up their own illegal copy of an object. I will be writing more about this.