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3D Printing: The Most Disruptive Technology Yet?

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About a week ago, MIT Technology Review posed the question "Are We Really on the Verge of a Napster-fication of Physical Objects?" The author of the piece, Mike Orcutt, was skeptical:

"Well, maybe some objects. As we've pointed out here before, most consumer 3-D printers can only work with a limited range of materials, and are far from able to perform the sophisticated manufacturing processes that lead to many of our favorite products."

That is true, but somewhat short sighted. We know that in 2013 new technologies develop incredibly quickly. Just look at the cell phone or the computer as examples. Both moved incredibly rapidly from large, slow, expensive machines with few functions to small, fast, affordable and incredibly multi-functional in a matter of a few decades. It is likely that 3D printing will evolve even more rapidly both because of the promise of the technology to improve lives and because new players from countries like China and India will increase the intensity and pace of competition.

Even now 3D printers can create a wide range of products the major challenge lies in making those technologies realistically affordable for consumers.

Orcutt also points out that:

"...the catalogue of 3-D-printable objects is small, especially when compared to the trove of music that became available for free thanks to MP3s and file sharing." 

That is true, for now but again give it time. I don't believe that, as of today, most people even know what a 3D printer is. As the technology spreads and evolves so will the number of 3D printed objects.

As far as the Napster-fication goes, it will not be quite like Napster. For a time I expect that people will share designs for Nike shoes, Apple iPhones and Toblerone candy bars and the inevitable law suits that go with such things but that will be short lived. File sharing, after all, is not what was disruptive for music or movies. What was disruptive was the lowering of the barriers to entry to almost zero.

As far as I can tell from the various data gathered on file sharing and the financial information of various industries, what happened was that the number of players in the marketplace increased exponentially. File sharing made an easy scapegoat because you cannot sue people over increased competition. Currently there is more music being produced and there are more films being made than at any point in history. Both industries are both enjoying healthy and rising profits. Some of the players have changed, some formerly successful companies and individuals have done poorly and some new players have done incredibly well but that is not a harbinger of doom for an industry.

Roughly the same thing will happen when file sharing is applied to physical objects especially when combined with the open source movement. Currently the barriers to entry for manufacturing are incredibly high. You must build or hire a factory and mass produce the object you want to manufacture. When you can design an object and make just one at a time just about everyone can and will get into the game, at least to some extent. The number of people who like to tinker, to some extent on something (ranging from engines to cookies) is vast compared to the number of people with the skills to make music or films.

The open source movement has been very successful, primarily in software. Projects like Linux and Firefox have not only provided free software to millions but have been improved upon year over year by people who like to tinker with code. They have also forced commercial software companies to step up their game in order to compete with free.

Now if we apply open source and 3D printing to other areas, the implications are obvious. For example, if all of the people who like to tinker with engines start building and designing, then share their ideas and try to improve on one another's work they can probably come up with something that would rival any current auto manufacturer. The same example could easily be applied to home appliances, clothing design, furniture, electronics, recipes, household cleansers, personal grooming products and nearly everything else you might buy in a store. The need to "share files" or steal the "intellectual property" of existing companies will be short lived.

When free is an option for all consumer goods it will have a greater disruptive impact than anything since, at least, the industrial revolution. When it happens it will not be music, film or book publishing that will be impacted it will be manufacturing, shipping, retail and, any and all industries that are closely tied to such activities (advertising for example).

How disruptive it might be, or what the social implications might be is difficult to predict this far out from the event. However, in the world of science fiction, 3D printing is similar in concept to the replicators of Star Trek. In Gene Roddenberry's fictitious universe culture on Earth had evolved beyond the desire to accumulate material possessions, had no poverty and had done away with currency entirely. In stands to reason that in a world where anyone can simply "print" anything they want that the desire to accumulate material possessions would greatly diminish, otherwise everyone would be a "hoarder" of epic proportions. It is not only possible but obvious that economics would look very different than they do now in a world where the making, moving, buying, selling and servicing of "stuff" is not much of a concern.