3D Printing hype

Especially after the furore created after Defense Distributed created a 3D-printed gun (or rather gun components), there seems to be a huge amount of confused discussion about this technology (or technologies), its benefits and limits, its trajectory, and its actual current role and impact, including who is using it.

I get a bad taste in my mouth when I read enthusiastic rah-rah articles about what people have been 3D printing, especially the ones with a technology determinist bent where materialist progress is the sole measure of a successful society. The most distasteful thing is how these articles usually present utter crap as their representational images. 3D printed plastic shoes, printed badly, no less? Oh, yeah, that’s going to save both the world and the global economy.

But neither do I have any sympathy for the people wailing and gnashing their teeth about the evils of 3D printing. This is because I believe it betrays a vast ignorance of what is actually going on and where the threats and opportunities actually lie. And hey, I’m no expert either, but I think I can detect an expert voice when I hear it. (And here I don’t count the ever-increasing numbers of fora and seminars and platforms for discussing the ethical, social, axiological sides of distributing production – as long as they arm themselves with the facts.)

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. There is a world of difference between digital manufacturing and personal (digital) fabrication, and 3D printers belong in both worlds – but do completely different things. Yes, personal FDM machines are becoming cheaper and easier to use, and people might buy them and print out some plastic crap and then forget about them, but do you really think this poses significant environmental risks when compared to the whole of consumer material flow in mass production? (And I’m pretty sure you can’t print out gun components successfully on a RepRap or Ultimaker.)

So let’s call this world DIY 2.0. Then we have Factory 2.0 where companies are using additive manufacturing technologies (let’s just use the media shorthand of ‘3D printing’ here) in various applications. This has existed for decades, by the way. Especially for prototypes and models but increasingly we’re seeing a shift in terminology from Rapid Prototyping to Rapid Manufacturing. And the most useful applications here seem to be in the biomedical field. I see no Chicken Little The Sky is Falling danger here, culturally, environmentally, socially – but I’m under no illusions that this new method of production is any panacea. I’ve said before that the biggest problems seem to be related to the unknown elements of the materials themselves, especially their toxicity which will have environmental impacts all through the life cycle, including End of Life. And I’m concerned about the ability to mix and fuse elements in additive fabrication (e.g. embedding electronics), which also complicates design for disassembly. But does design for disassembly, design for repair, design for reuse, etc. exist in mass produced consumer products? exclamation point. If we detect the problems beforehand, and especially identify the leverage points, we can (try to) prevent many of these issues from becoming issues.

There have been a couple of recent Economist articles on 3D printing that mention this difference between the consumers/hobbyists and industrial production – focusing especially on what is happening in China and in certain industries such as aerospace. The second article especially clarifies *what* 3D printing is suited for and where it sits in relation to conventional manufacturing. That’s important to remember, and something that is usually neglected in the hype-and-furore. This includes remembering what kinds of activities these are. Are they B2B, or B2C? Becoming C2B?

What is interesting (for me) to monitor here in terms of environmental impact is the change in supply chains, if any. Will production become more local after all, if the Chinese move towards additive manufacturing and mass customization? Will we be able to prevent pre-consumer waste (as we see in the fashion industry) as stuff will be produced according to what customers order, rather than the current model where massive volumes of stuff produced are then pushed onto consumers – and shoved into landfill if the customers don’t want it, or even before it hits the shops?

OK, let’s go back to DIY 2.0. Terry Wohlers is *the* turn-to guy on 3D printing, and he’s not predicting a huge revolution in personal fabrication. He, like a lot of Americans in the field, focuses on education and the role of ‘making’ in promoting math and science education and understanding as well as a new generation of entrepreneurs. But what about entrepreneurs today? The more inexpensive 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies are, and/or the more access independent designers and creatives (or any other entrepreneur, for that matter) have to them, the more it can help them. I’ve seen this myself in Fab Labs. Nothing wrong with a little distributed, grassroots, niche innovation, even if it doesn’t grow expansively and turn into the next Nokia. (Ah – sorry, the updated Finnish example is now Rovio or Supercell.)

Wohlers also points out another important thing in the Forbes article, the services that are popping up around the Maker Movement. This means that both the entrepreneurs *and* the hobbyists can turn to businesses like Ponoko and Shapeways and iMaterialise to get things made in better quality and better materials. For consumers/hobbyists, this is the fuzzy in-between area between DIY 2.0 and Factory 2.0. Another hype-and-furore thread I find quite amusing / ghastly is directly related to this development: the horror (expressed by professional designers) that people without design training might design their own products. My opinions on that would need a different post on another day, but again, let’s re-examine the scale of this in relation to the dominant consumerist mass production paradigm. Is it really going to grow into a threat, especially in the next, say, ten years? I doubt it.

Designers are also concerned about the legal issues, and this is something quite fascinating to monitor. Regarding concerns over protecting IP and design rights, in this day and age, I laugh heartily in their general direction. (Admitting, all the while, that I make my money from design research and not designing products.) More intriguing, Motherboard (among many others) points out that some laser sintering patents are expiring next year and how Makerbot emerged from the expiration of FDM patents. So something interesting could be on the horizon. In addition, the industry is consolidating. Makerbot was bought by 3D Systems while RepRap remains open source and firmly in the grassroots, experimental, p2p hacker/maker community. These two threads, the commercial and proprietary developments and the open source ones, will be worth following. Open source and open design will always have a role to play in environmental, social and economic sustainability, but that is also a discussion for another day.

If you are keenly following this development, then there is nothing new or surprising here. At any rate, check out the ‘expert voices’ in the links. Some useful stuff there.


‘What Works And What Doesn’t In 3D Printing: A Talk With Terry Wohlers’, in Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/rakeshsharma/2013/09/12/what-works-and-what-doesnt-in-3d-printing-a-talk-with-terry-wohlers/ . See also ‘3D Printing Misinformation’ by Wohlers: http://wohlersassociates.com/blog/2013/08/3d-printing-misinformation/

‘Next Year, 3D Printers May Finally Make Something You Want to Keep’, in Motherboard: http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/2014-may-be-the-year-3d-printers-make-something-you-want-to-keep

‘From dental braces to astronauts’ seats’, in The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21585005-signs-are-3d-printing-transforming-manufacturing-not-ways-you-might . (Read the comments too, just for fun.)

‘3D printing scales up’, in The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/technology-quarterly/21584447-digital-manufacturing-there-lot-hype-around-3d-printing-it-fast