Additive manufacturing, now ‘3D printing’, has been around and evolving for years. But with the introduction of the precision and automated control of lasers and CAD (computer aided design) encoding the design of the manufactured (‘printed’) part, the field has taken off. Imagine having a device approximately the size of a refrigerator in your garage that can build a complex part and heat treat or anneal it so that it’s ready for use or assembly with other parts. (For a tutorial video on the subject, view this TED talk.)
RR has covered 3D printing in the context of living in these pre-Singularity years (here). Because it is not at all farfetched to anticipate autonomous intelligent machines deciding what parts to make when in order to repair something or build an unimagined device, or even replicate itself. But most people can’t wrap their minds around that and will relegate it to way out science fiction. So let’s leave that thread, and talk about more immediate matters.
I believe 3D printing will soon become another cause and contributor to social and commercial upheaval. Such manufacturing capability will upend so much of our current commercial infrastructure. Imagine the spread of low level fabrication across the land. A part fails on your lawn mower or air conditioner. Instead of going to the usual outlets to buy a replacement, you either make it yourself or pick it up from a local fabricator for a fraction of the price.
The required CAD files to make things will multiply like bacteria across the internet. You will be able to download (and possibly modify) the needed design that the printer will use to make the part(s). The overhead of setting up the manufacturing operation will be miniscule, and its cost identical to making either one or a number of parts of this or that design. The only real set-up will be to load the proper powdered metal/plastic/etc and bonding agent into the printer. And local manufactories will specialize in custom manufacturing that use certain materials and handling parts up to a given size or precision or ... (after all, the damn thing has to fit in the printer, so you can’t make everything with just one size machine). But all these are just details that are being worked out by dozens of companies – just google ‘3D printing’.
Since CAD files for everything imaginable will go viral on the internet, people will be able to make procure one-off items that governments and their corporate partners will seek to prohibit. An obvious class of item is firearms. As the nearby picture shows, you will soon be able to make a, say, totally vanilla and unregistered semi-auto pistol. And only your imagination will limit your own list of controlled articles that will be available to anyone with a printer.
And that’s where the state will come in. Because of the utter flexibility of what can be made, the state will quickly begin controlling 3D printing and the production of the necessary powdered forms of the materials and their bonding agents required in the process. Unfortunately, this government/corporate control partnership will work against the creation of jobs that would be created in the thousands of small job shops and just-in-time manufactories across the land, and overseas.
Most certainly this kind of printing will bring jobs back to the developed countries because the labor overhead is so low, and the transportation and distribution cost savings will be great. It is such modes of creative destruction that the stasist factions of our society will try to prevent. The interview with Cody Wilson of DefDist, pictured nearby, is revealing. (H/T to reader for this link.)
[28jan13 update] iRobot filed a patent for autonomous all-in-one 3D printing, milling, drilling and finishing robot. More here.