3D Printing Is Here

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Last week my friend and I had an interesting discussion on the nature of “revolutions”. We both agreed that when historians look back at our era (1990-2010) they will say that we were living through the “internet revolution.” However, did it feel like we lived through a revolution? Well, even though the internet fundamentally changed everything we do, the transition to a world built around the internet didn’t feel like a revolution to me. It just sort of felt normal. Of course, part of that has to do with my age (I’m 26 so I grew up with the revolution). However, this brings up an interesting aspect of revolution: we seem to impose revolution on the past. We construct the narrative of revolution.

Take for example the two most famous historical revolutions: the agricultural and the industrial. For someone living through either revolution, they would not have known they were actually living through what we now see as a significant turning point in the narrative of human existence. In fact, both of those revolutions happened at imperceptibly slow paces compared to the internet revolution. The agricultural revolution diffused so slowly that it developed in five different geographic regions independently. The industrial revolution only had one diffusion center, however its global spread took centuries. The internet revolution arguably took about 10-20 years (even though some would argue it won’t be complete until the end of this decade when almost every human will be online and connected).

But I digress.

Last week I wrote a post explaining that we should anticipate a robot revolution in the 2020s-2030s that will change the world more than the internet did between 1990-2010. However, I’m getting ahead of myself again because I think we should realize that we are on the cusp of an equally revolutionary moment in history right now: the 3D printing revolution.

Before you accuse me of using the word revolution too liberally, let me first list the developments in the world of 3D printing this year:

These are all things that have happened this year and it is only April! Is it safe to say that 2013 is going to be remembered as the year of the 3D printer? Actually, maybe it will be remembered for the introduction to 4D printing

In 1999, Ray Kurzweil explained that dynamic systems evolve exponentially. He called this type of evolution the Law of Accelerating Returns (you can read more about this law here). The Law of Accelerating Returns has profound implications for the future of technological evolution, especially when applied to something like 3D printing. However, I don’t think you have to be a technological evolution expert to understand that the human future will be fundamentally transformed by 3D printing.

From my perspective all the developments in 3D printing this year indicate that we are on the cusp of a revolution. What does our world look like when manufacturing becomes decentralized? Many experts predict that affordable, easy-to-use 3D printers will be in peoples homes in 10-20 years. These printers could be used for replacing spare parts, making food/meals, creating clothing, furniture, cars … organs?

Many 3D printing enthusiasts propose that you will only be constrained by your own imagination. Check out the 3Doodler as an example of the type of creative products that will emerge over the next few decades.

This decentralization of manufacturing will almost certainly change the global economy in ways that are hard to predict. Will there be jobs for anyone in the manufacturing sector? What type of value will physical objects have when production is inexpensive? How will 3D printing (and advanced Watson-like A.I.) transform hospitals? Will individual people be able to create established companies that required hundreds of people to build in the past (e.g., automobile, clothing companies, etc.).

We also need to contemplate more sinister sides to this revolution. How will we protect biological information? Will someone be able to manufacture and print a deadly virus or bacterium? What about the possibility of an individual 3D printing weapons of mass destruction?

I think the developments in 3D printing this year force us all to contemplate questions like this (both positive and negative). In terms of the future of manufacturing, we may get a glimpse of what this revolution will look like if we analyze what is happening in media today. I feel as though the internet revolution decentralized media mediums, enabling individuals to build their own empires. Bora Zivkovic brilliantly explored the dynamics of this transition well in a recent Scientific American article on science writing:

[In the 20th century] very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence. Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free. This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There are several examples of dominant media outlets today that would not have been possible before the internet revolution. I feel as though we will be able to say the same about automobile, clothing, computer, robotics, biotech companies, etc. in the 2030s. So if you are in business (or want to get into business), understanding how the Law of Accelerating Returns applies to the 3D printing industry could be very helpful.

I’ll end by adding that my roommate (who is in business) always tells me that the worlds of science and business don’t communicate enough. I agree, but when I study chimpanzee behaviour or the future of exoplanet detection there may not be any relevance to the business world. However, people who study technological evolution can definitely help inform those in business (and vice versa). So if you are interested in learning more about what some leading theorists think about how the next few decades of technological change will transform business (and our planet), check out this panel discussion hosted by Big Think.

How do you think 3D printing will change our world?

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