3-d printers have garnered much public attention lately. You may have heard about how you can print out a plastic gun, or saw the Gigabot large-format 3-d printer on Kickstarter. Or perhaps you heard Obama mention them in his 2013 state of the union address as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” But where did they come from? On a macro level, why do they matter?
One answer comes from Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, where outgoing WIRED editor Chris Anderson sees 3-d printers as driving a wave of small-scale manufacturing. Recent advances have dropped the price of additive printing systems, which delicately squeeze out plastic that hardens to make nearly any shape, to the $500-1000 range. Anderson takes Negroponte’s famous statement of working with “bits not atoms” and turns it on its head: bits can now lead to change in atoms. He sees this as the natural application of his “long tail” thesis to small businesses… call it the “materialities turn” of Internet purchasing, where everybody can print out artisanal-style widgets. No longer do we need to be content with buying something and having it shipped, we can simply print it on a 3-d printer of our own or in a local workshop.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that enthusiasm for cheap 3-d printers gained momentum through the hacker and maker space (HMS) movement. Initially, 3-d printers were too expensive and difficult to fine-tune for your average user. Being part of an HMS provided access to a knowledge base and funding for tools. These devices also tickle hackers’ longstanding fascination with using technology to push boundaries of what is possible. HMS members immediately saw the benefit to one, because being able to print anything was a natural extension of their particular fusion of hacker and maker culture… think an “information should be free” hacker ethic meets hands-on craft.
My hesitance around Anderson’s enthusiasm is that his framing of 3-d printers is pure economic boosterism. There’s nothing inherent about 3-d printers that engenders it to a larger revolution. First, makerbots do not make something out of nothing any more than cars allow people to be magically transported from place to place. The plastic has to be purchased/shipped, the device assembled, and software understood. These require a pretty substantial investment in terms of money (from Maker industries the plastic costs $48 per kg plus shipping) and literacies. Second, the type of objects that are printable are rather limited. Additive printing, which uses plastic, is currently more popular than subtractive printing, which whittles down a block of wood or plastic to create a finished product. Third, 3-d printing can be quite finicky and difficult. Printing and assembling the plastic derringer that has garnered so much of the news cycle lately is a rather difficult process to produce a one-shot gun that (if you’re lucky) can be safely fired once or twice before cracking. 3-d printers may be useful ways to create parts or prototypes, but they will never be the best way to make many objects.
Hopes of 3-d printers re-invigorating the American economy also have a whiff of jingoism, or at minimum, an overbearingly anglo western male perspective. I had the same issue with Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford’s ode to working with one’s hands. In the book’s final chapter he wondered aloud while observing Indian workers if his profoundly male, western ideals of craft could exist overseas. What seemed to elude him is that western culture doesn’t have a monopoly on DIY. People in other countries are picking up on the same possibilities as American hobbyists do, but in profoundly different ways. If “maker culture” is anything, it is infinitely mutable. My friend Silvia Lindtner has been busy exploring shanzhai in China, where the government backs HMSs as locations for distributed R&D.
What seems more likely than a total economic revolution is what has always happened: the simultaneous advancement of hobbyist uses alongside more sophisticated for-profit applications of 3-d printing. Semi-amateur uses of these printers initially drew from practices developed for free and open-source software (F/OSS) software, where plans were made freely available. The shift towards closed-source has proven rather controversial, as evidenced in the flap surrounding the MakerBot Replicator 2 not going fully open-source. The goals of the open-source wing of this community are also somewhat odd. For example, a goal of the RepRap is “self-replication” – the 3-d printer could print another 3-d printer, continuing the existence (evolution?) of its species. While it’s an interesting provocation, self-replication is quite a ways off.
We can expect a progressive integration of 3-d printing with specific industries where they serve a purpose that isn’t currently being met with existing technologies. Expensive medical implants and prosthetics can be custom-printed for cheaper and with a more rapid turnaround. Toy manufacturing is based in plastics and always growing towards the more obscure, customized, and personal among hardcore adult RPG fans. But just because you can print a toilet and toilets are needed in third-world countries, doesn’t mean that we should start sending 3-d printers there. Looming socio-economic problems in areas with complex political histories can’t always be solved by applying the latest expensive tool.