Some thoughts on 3-D printing…
The Cupcake 3-D printer from MakerBot, which achieved self-replication a few months ago.
Rafael Cabral, a journalist working for the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, interviewed me this week for a piece on 3-D printing. He kindly gave me permission to publish the interview here too:
Do you think that everyone will have a desktop 3D printer? If so when? How distant to â€œdownloading sneakersâ€ are we?
It’s certainly technically possible to have one already. Companies like MakerBot are already shipping them to people worldwide. Whether or not they will become mainstream is primarily a cultural question – there are a lot of cool technologies we could be using that just never really caught on in a huge way, like the Segway for example. But as 3-D printers become more versatile and useful, it makes sense that more people would want to use them. I still think we are at least a decade or so away from a downloadable sneaker that should worry the likes of Nike.
What are the major challenges for the popularization of this technology? Do you think that the industry and brands are interested in the development of domestic 3D printers? Or worried?
Right now 3-D printers don’t really have a killer app. Music was the killer app for the internet – filesharing was the thing that really made the internet seem so cool and powerful and disruptive. Right now the closest thing 3-D printers have is being able to print out your World of Warcraft avatar, which is not as cool as free music. Free downloadable sneakers would do it for sure, but I think it will be something simpler first. Bottle openers maybe, a lot of people with 3-D printer are making those already, and a bottle opener is definitely a social object.
There are some large 3-D printer manufacturers out there who want nothing more than to see this all go mainstream and become the new Apples and Microsofts of the world. When you talk to them, they are really excited about the possibilities and what might happen. I don’t think a lot of people feel threatened by 3-D printers yet, because the threat isn’t there yet. None of the record labels felt threatened by the concept of the internet in the 1980s. Most of them weren’t worried in the 1990s either.
The major implications of the popularization of 3D printers are economic and legal. What do you think that will happen if we create technologies capable of allowing citizens to replace much of the historical industrial-era supply chain? Too dystopic or the old economy can try to make it illegal, like they did with file-sharing?
I think there will be some serious pushback from some powerful communities over 3-D printing, if it catches on. It could upset shipping, all kinds of manufacturing and supply-chain businesses, the entire manufacturing process potentially. That would mean more new economic thinking and business models, the kind of thinking we still haven’t figured out for the digital world. It basically means all of the problems of the internet spilling into the real world. But also all of the possibilities. It won’t be the end of capitalism – It is just as likely to lead to some amazing new businesses and economic ideas as it is to destroy some old systems. It’s an opportunity, not a problem.
In Pirateâ€™s Dilemma, Adrian Bowyer said that â€œengineering has been making things wrongly since the industrial revolutionâ€ – I think he was talking about self-replicating 3D printers. Do you agree with his quote? Is it interesting for the technological industry to sell printers that can create others printers?
He meant that nature has always been more efficient at reproducing than our machines have. The self-replicating machine is indeed a conundrum for “industry” as we’ve come to define it. If such a machine were to become mainstream,we would find ourselves making only two things – raw materials and information, which scares people. But on the other hand, aren’t those the only two things we’ve ever made? And those aren’t the things we sell. We sell people stories about the things we make, which isn’t going to change because of 3-D printers. I think people will always buy something if it comes with a good story, it doesn’t matter where it’s made really. Nike doesn’t own any sneaker factories – and they spend way more money of branding and advertising than they do on making shoes. We already live in a world where the story is the only thing worth anything.
Have you read Chris Andersonâ€™s piece about the new industrial revolution (open source, small factorys, 3D printers)? What do you think about his idea? A new model of production can rise?
I think Chris may, as usual, be on to something. A new model of production based on 3-D printing is already there, it’s just very, very small at the moment. It’s growing for sure, but whether or not it becomes the dominant force in manufacturing depends on many things that have nothing to do with how good the technology is. It’s hard to predict where 3-D printing will end up because there are so many cultural and social factors we can’t predict. We live in a world where politicians make decisions because people give them bags of money or send their wives boxes of cookies. Big decisions about what is acceptable or allowed aren’t always governed by rational thought, or what’s the best way for us to move forward as a society. The one thing that is certain is this technology is improving very quickly. If it continues to do so, we will have some important decisions to make. But if there is one thing we’ve learned so far from the digtial age, it’s that technology that’s really good and really useful always seems to win out, even if it is forbidden.