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Is 3D printing the technology of the future?

A couple of years ago I went trekking in northern Thailand. We passed through a small village where I noticed a man in the process of weaving a big basket that was probably going to be used to transport local products. The next day we came through the village again and there he was – still working on the basket.

At the time it struck me that the man was not going to make a lot of money weaving baskets but that his business would certainly be considered politically correct back home. He was engaged in sustainable production. He was using all-natural materials and producing locally, meaning he was not consuming fossil fuels and therefore not contributing to climate change. Does it get any better than this?

Thinking back on this experience, I wonder if 3D printing could create that kind of situation or something like it – tailored and localized production that were the hallmarks of pre-industrialized commerce.

Sometimes we see things that remind us of how it used to be, which is why a spiral is a good metaphor for development. Evolution is certainly an irreversible process. You never come back to a starting point, but you may get a glimpse of the past along the way.

Huge potential in the next 30 years

3D printing is sometimes called additive production. It is distinct from traditional industrial production, in which mostly material is removed, for example through drilling or cutting, to create a product. 3D printing is achieved by laying down layer after layer of material. Computer software controls the process, telling the 3D printer what to create.

Right now it seems that 3D printing could become the production technology of the 21st Century. It is a relatively new technology and many experts expect 3D printing to become steadily better, cheaper and more versatile, as we’ve seen happen with other technologies. Some envision 3D printers ranging from a desktop printer for small things to one that “prints” your new house!

As a society, we tend to overestimate the potential changes of new technologies in the near term and underestimate the potential changes over the long term. Personally, I don’t expect 3D printing to bring about major changes in the next say 5 years. However, looking out 20 to 30 years, I think the potential is huge. 3D printing could actually become a very disruptive technology, changing the way we produce, changing existing value chains and even forming the basis of a much more decentralized society – a society that only needs to produce what is needed when it is needed. You could even say that we are facing a new industrial revolution.

A new industrial revolution

The first industrial revolution saw us a move from artisanal production, like the man in northern Thailand, to mass production on the assembly line. This brought with it economies of scale that made products much cheaper than their artisanal counterparts.

So far 3D printing cannot compete economically with traditional mass production. However, I’m quite certain it can and it will become the basis for production in small series and you may start hearing the term “Lotsize1” more often.

3D printing has potential for a number of reasons:

  1. 3D printing can make tailored production affordable and is hence a good answer to the increase in individualism. Human individualism and a desire to be unique are on the rise, and people want to show it through the things they use or wear. The main reason for this increase in individualism is an increase in wealth – we can afford it – as well as continuing urbanization around the globe. As people move from rural to urban areas, their environment generally changes from a small, close knit community with clear rules and norms to a more chaotic environment in the city where they find they have more space to act as they like. 3D printing has the potential to allow people to create totally individualized products nearly as cheaply as traditional mass production.
  2. There is a growing need for creativity and product development. In a world with an accelerating rate of change, product development has to be sped up, too. 3D printing allows us to explore more ideas faster by printing prototypes and learning from them before the next step in the development is taken.
  3. 3D printing enables just-in-time production, which can reduce the waste of resources. As the world focuses more and more on sustainability, this can only be a good thing.

Endless possibilities

There is no limit to the imagination when it comes to 3D printing. Futures speaker and consultant Ian Pearson has some pretty wild notions about the future of 3D printing. One example is creating sculptures based only on 3D scanned pictures. He also talks about 3D printing for cancer treatment. X-ray based printing could be used to build heating circuits inside cancers so that inductive power could be used to burn away a tumor. He even goes as far as to say that x-ray based circuit building in the brain could be used for thought-based web searches – now that’s pretty wild, I’d say!

If you take all of this one step further you could envision 3D printing leading to a totally decentralized society. Futurists call this a “wild card” – highly unlikely but very rich in consequences if it were to transpire. The continued developments in energy technology point in this direction. The use of solar energy and fuel cells could make homes of the future not only passive but perhaps even energy generating, i.e. producing more energy than they use. If you combine this with 3D printing facilities in every home you have the basis for a highly decentralized world. Of course there is still the challenge of food production. Science fiction writers typically solve this problem through hydroponics. In this scenario the only connection one would need to the outside world is the delivery of raw materials for their 3D printer. This could make packaging and shipping all but obsolete! This kind of future might look rather bleak for the classic logistics business, but let’s not forget it’s only a “wild card.”


  • gold price
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    Lastly, many items derive their utility from the physical properties of the materials they are made from – for example, Pyrex cookware, or NiChrome heating elements. 3D printers are not capable of “synthesizing” these materials and are entirely dependent on the feedstock material provided. To produce even a subset of consumer goods used in the average household would require dozens to hundreds of different feedstock materials, many of which are not suited to the processes used in 3D printing.

  • Carsten Hess
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    in Germany dental care products are already fabbed @ higher quality and lower prices than in usual manufacturing regions. The potential for sustainability and autonomous societies will be a game changer and reverse all current globalisation strategies to a certain extent. Since the author refers to Science fiction writers here my tip: Daniel Suarez: Daemon + Darknet.

  • Michael Pruden
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    Interesting Technology.

    When we talk about producing or making things, what we really mean is taking things and chaning their form into something else. With traditional printers we take paper and black ink, produce/mix the two together and we get a printed page as an output.

    This always follows the same formula: input –> change –> output. Simple physics. 3D printers even in 30 and 3000 years will always have to follow this basic rule.

    What this does mean though, is that in the future a more decentralized form of production will be possible for substances that can be easily combined with each other. Gradually with further developement the scope of what can be 3D printed could increase. At the same time though the complexity of the products we demand (iphone5) also increases.

    Nonetheless it will be interesting to see what exactly a 3D printer will be able to print at the right cost that is of any value to someone.

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