A popular Internet meme makes fun of an Australian anti piracy ad by asking, in large edgy letters, “You wouldn’t download a car, would you?” The answer to that question is going to be mostly yes, from most people. If you could download a copy of a car and have it in your garage the next morning, or perhaps the next week, there isn’t anyone who wouldn’t do that. The car companies might go out of business, and the cops might even stop you and take your down loaded car away, but who cares? You could just download another copy tomorrow. But the idea of downloading physical objects may actually become real soon, with the advent of 3D printers.
Making objects whenever you want them used to be in the realm of science fiction. But now, with companies such as Stratasys and MakerBot Industries selling more and more affordable 3D printers, the possibil ity of designing and printing out your own plastic objects has been realized. Combine those printers with a home computer and a copy of Autodesk and a resource such as the website Fab@Home, and you can con ceivably create a garage-based manufactur ing center which can produce all the mun dane tools and utensils that one needs for everyday life. Also, you could produce cus tom-fitted prosthetics for amputees, paper based photovoltaic cells, components for airplanes, medical instruments, and yes – even parts for lightweight hybrid vehicles.
You can really, truly download a car. The 3D printing industry is real, and is predicted to be $3.1 billion in 2016 and $5.2 billion in 2020. It has been predicted by Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, as the “transformative technol ogy of the 2015-2025 period.” There are many names for this new industry: 3D printers, digital fabbers, RepRaps (from replicating rapid prototypers), and other names. Using a computer model, these ma chines lay down patterns of plastic, metal powder, or other materials to duplicate cross-sections of an object. If the material needs to be cooked, lasers or ultraviolet light can help with that. This type of ad ditive manufacturing is also appealing to professional factory owners because one system can make any number of a million different things. And because there is no need to chip away extra material, there is less waste in the manufacturing process as a whole. Also, since products can be made where they will be used, warehousing and transportation costs can be eliminated.
Imagine an intermediate step between the manufacturing plants of today and the home basement factories of tomor row – the corner plant. You can simply call your corner store and order a set of plas tic forks, or a child’s toy, or a replacement steering wheel for your hybrid vehicle, and the store could print it out and deliver it to you in a few hours. Currently the only thing standing in the way of this reality is price.
And prices are falling fast. Ten years ago, a simple 3D printing system cost tens of thousands of dollars. But now 3D printers for hobbyists can be bought from Maker Bot Industries for just $2,500. And kits that one can use to assemble a RepRap printer have been sold for $500. In just a few years devices such as these can be created for mass production and sold at computer or home appliance level prices.
One of the goals of some 3D printer makers is to make a 3D printer which can then create itself again by 3D printing out its own parts. This is somewhat difficult, as the frame of a 3D printer is best made us ing metal, which cannot be replicated so inexpensively with the printer. But if an open-source and free printer could repli cate itself, it could spread across the entire world in a pattern that would mimic a pop ular Internet joke or a virus. One printer could make dozens, if not hundreds, more, and each one in turn could be given to an other person who would use it to make more printers, and household objects.
Also, while a 3D printer might not be able to effortlessly replicate everything that you enjoy having around in your house, it might easily be able to create everything that at 3rd world village would ever need to create a better standard of living for itself. Couple a 3D printer up with some photovoltaic cells and keep it supplied with whatever it needs to create its prod ucts and you have packaged a miniature industrial revolution in a can, which you can then spread throughout the savannahs and jungles in the harder-to-reach sections of the world. An affordable, self-sustaining 3D printer could do more to relieve human suffering than anything else imaginable. Of course there would still be limitations to the technology. The goop, or gunk, or whatever technical term you would use to describe the material that the printer uses to make its stuff would still be valuable.
People would have to ration it in resource scarce areas, and buy and sell it. Also, the appeal of non-3D printed objects would probably increase, causing their prices to go up. People may have easy access to the simple, plastic fork and knife sets, but true status could be shown through hand-carved wooden utensils. Nevertheless the lower limit for human misery could be reached, and everybody in the world could go up one more step on the stairway to utopia. Another factor would be the designs. Many designs could be open-source and easily accessible to everyone, but someone might have original, artistic takes on your common door-stopper or a lawn chair, which they would either try to keep un der wraps or sell for a fee. Then of course an economy of pirated 3D designs would develop in which people would blatantly copy their friend’s hard-won beer stein rep lica from that movie they loved, and soon everybody in the world would have one of those beer steins. It would be a fundamen tal change in people’s relationships with the physical that has not been seen since the original industrial revolution. And this not even a theoretical possibility – all the pieces are in place now. This reporter is half-tempted to buy one of these bad boys right now and start cranking out the cus tom-designed Star Wars pottery.
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