The world’s first affordable 3D printer is expected to hit the shelves in 2014. But are we ready for them? Would you spend your hard-earned cash on a 3D printer?
Cutting edge innovators Pirate 3D sent ripples through the technological world when they recently announced plans to launch a 3D printer that costs less than an iPhone.
The development of an affordable 3D printer has long been seen as the Holy Grail of ‘distributed manufacturing’ – the term given for making things locally without the need for big factories and heavy plant.
And if Pirate 3D’s promise becomes reality, it has the potential to catapult distributed manufacturing beyond its final frontier and into a new era of localised, make-it-at-home manufacturing with enormous implications.
Will consumers really take hold of 3D printing?
The current £2,000 price tag on MakerBot has so far been just enough to put off the bedroom software geeks and tech hobbyists from joining the 3D revolution. Similar to the early development of the personal computer, the introduction of affordable 3D printing could herald the moment when the techno geeks – and the general masses too – finally get their chance to hack, innovate, exploit and explore the full potential of this new and exciting technology.
But how radical will this change be? After all, we’ve been talking about innovations like this for quite a while. In his 1884 text, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, the libertarian socialist and writer William Morris wrote:
‘The first step towards making labour attractive is to get the means of making labour fruitful, the Capital, including the land, machinery, factories, etc. into the hands of the community, to be used for the good of all alike, so that we might all work at “supplying” the real “demands” of each and all.’
If that sounds strangely familiar, it’s because Morris’s words have been (largely unwittingly) echoed on a thousand technology blogs and news sites writing about 3D printing over the past couple of years.
So, have we finally got there? Does 3D printing herald the paradigm shift in the relationship between consumers and their products that Morris wrote about? Or will it just be business as usual but under a different guise?
Companies or consumers – how will 3D printers grow?
It seems to me that at this point the technology can go one of two ways, and that each direction has very different – and important – implications for us as a society.
In one version, innovation will be driven by the big guns, like Amazon and Tesco. These guys already know what they want from the technology, and you can be fairly certain that they will be viewing 3D printing as a new way to reduce the cost and impact of supply chains, and to move to ‘instant’, rather than same-day delivery. At the end of the day, everything is still very much in their control.
In the other version, innovation will be driven by communities and individuals, and will function as part of a more networked society. To explore this idea the MoMo was developed – a concept for 2030 that is currently on display at the Design Museum’s exhibition, The Future is Here. The MoMo allows consumers to scan their possessions and find out what they could be made into using a 3D printer.
As a concept, the MoMo explores the way that 3D printing might help us to develop a way of consuming products that isn’t about the relationship between a consumer and their individual possessions. Instead, each shopping (or printing) decision could form a node in a consumption network where production and consumption are seen as cyclical, collective acts.
In this version, the added personal and communal responsibility for the end users may help us to reduce waste and develop a stronger awareness of the materials that go into our products. Could the future of 3D printing be less about 3D printed shoes, and more about community development initiatives like Assemble & Join’s model of community micro-manufacturing? Now that’s a really exciting idea.
This opinion piece from Phillida was first published on the Forum for the Future.