The future of 3D printing

3D Printed shoe

This is a 3D-printed shoe I recently found search Flickr for images on 3D printing. It is obvious that the quality of 3D printing is rapidly getting better and according to the discussions on the Internet most people seems fascinated of and apparently caught in the race towards higher and higher quality. The problem with this race is that it might draw us down into the technical details of 3D printing rather than into the important implications 3D printing might have in the future.

There are (at least) four aspects that is much more important that product quality to note when thinking about where 3D printing might take us in the future. 3D printing might:

  1. Potentially fill the basic but enormous global needs of relatively simple objects - From a global perspective the greatest need for things is not the need for advanced and complicated things like Stradivarius violins or electron microscopes but more small and mundane things like cogs, wrenches or gaskets that is needed for maintaining or developing the irrigation equipment that is needed for producing food. What 3d printers is on it's way of doing is potentially give the people of the planet the access to the spare parts and daily practical tools that is needed to help themselves and fight poverty.
  2. Redefine the distribution and personalization of products - Since the industrial revolution a product is typically mass produced in a factory and distributed over long distances through a complex web of transportation modes and storages. If 3D printing becomes more widespread production can instead be performed by a local and basically unmanned printer, which also with no extra effort can produce a personalized version in a way which is very complicated to do in a traditional mass production facilities. If this happens large parts of the distribution and production structures will then be bypassed for a long row of small products. A direct consequence for trade regulations is that they will most likely to be obsolete since the current ways of limiting import of products is by border controls wheree customs personal looks for physical objects.
  3. Blur the border between ideas and physical things - Since we have been living in a world of physical things, our thinking, habits and rules are constituted by physical objects. E g society have decided that certain objects are illegal or heavily regulated since they are potentially dangerous if spreading in an uncontrolled way. Guns and certain drug manufacturing equipment are examples of such regulated physical objects. What if everybody everywhere can download or draw and then print out those objects on their personal 3d printer? Should ideas and sketches of illegal physical objects also be illegal? When the border between the physical object and the idea of the physical object blurs, we will have unprecedented and conceptually really difficult challenges.
  4. Break down the current model of factories and value chains - What is becoming possible with 3D printing in the longer perspective is the transformation of one object into another without the need of a factory. That means that if you have an empty plastic bottle you could use a 3D printer to transform it into things like a required spare part, a wrench or a shoe. Or if you have a pair of childrens shoes which becomes too small, why not scan them in a 3D scanner, reuse the material of the old shoes (and maybe add some material from the empty plastic bottle) and print out a pair of identical shoes in a larger size. All without the need of a factory, distribution chain and a shoe store.
Every one of these changes has the potential of radically transform the industrial society into something very different. I think it is worth thinking about the consequences and track the development in this area closely. Especially since most of the 3D printing development currently seems to happen outside all the large corporations.

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