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Adding Our Way to Abundance

How 3D Printing Will Obsolete the Economy of Scarcity and the Corporations that Rely On It

Photo Credit Oskay

One concept you’ll be hearing about a lot in the next decade is Additive Manufacturing.

This is a fancy name for something you’ve likely already heard of — 3D printing. In traditional manufacturing, we start with a lump of something, then whittle it down into the product we want. Like Michelangelo, we cut away everything that is not “David”. There’s nothing wrong with this method, and we’ve made amazing advances this way — but simply put, we’re reaching the limits of what can be done by “milling away” a lump of material to leave behind the object we want. As impressive as such displays as this one are, what if we wanted to incorporate electronics into the finished piece? Obviously, we would be able to make areas to enclose the electronics, and channels to run the wires through and so on. But that means we have to make a helmet with who knows how many parts, with individual sections produced on separate machines, via separate processes, and then assembled to make the final product. But, then we have to worry about how we attach all those pieces together to make the final product too…

Of course, we have production lines and machines capable of making all those individual parts. It’s been one of the primary achievements of the industrial revolution. Being able to make millions of identical parts is one of the triumphs of modern technology, and has been a huge factor in enabling us to create our advanced civilization, but it’s become a stumbling block to further innovation. Why? Because it’s become a barrier to small scale industry. It’s not economical to build a complete assembly line to build five or six products. This has thus made it “too risky” for businesses to create a product that might sell only a few hundred or a few thousand items. It also means that in order to meet demand, manufacturers must make thousands to millions of items in the hope that all of them sell, and if demand is less than anticipated, the surplus items are essentially wasted. This, in turn, makes the mass market overly sensitive to economic upturns and downturns. Since it takes months to years to design, create an assembly process, and then actually make the product, manufacturers won’t bother with anything other than what they feel is going to be a very successful product. Because of this, subtractive manufacturing has become a “gateway” through which only a small number of innovations may pass, and which discourages “revolutionary” innovation in favor of “evolutionary” fine tuning of past successes.

There are many advantages that mass manufacturing has brought with it, such as the economies of scale which have enabled massive reductions in the cost of nearly everything. The computer revolution certainly would have been impossible without it. But there are very definite limits to what can be made via subtractive manufacturing, and while we haven’t reached them yet, we are getting nearer to them with every passing year.

So what really makes “Additive Manufacturing” different than “Subtractive Manufacturing?” Right now, not much. We’re still perfecting the various processes and expanding the materials that can be used, but progress in this is proceeding at an extremely fast rate. When the first 3D printers were created over a decade ago, they were little more than glorified 2D printers. I can recall a model of the earth which was created by essentially cutting sheets of paper via laser into precise shapes, that were then glued together layer by layer to make the finished globe. But since then we’ve made enormous progress- so much that the army is researching a derivative of that original laser printer to fuse titanium particles into finished parts for instant tank repairs. We’ve also learned how to use different materials from plastic to stem cells to conductive metals and dyes. DuPont recently printed a 50 inch Oled display in under two minutes, using various layers of conductive fast drying dyes laid down in precise patterns.

But it’s what we are likely going to be able to do within a decade that makes Additive Manufacturing so disruptive. To begin with, it’s going to eliminate mass production. Eric Drexler and I disagree about this fact, but to put it bluntly, when 3D printers have matured, assembly lines will be quickly phased out of existence. Why would you need an assembly line to make sub pieces of a final product, when the printer can print every single subcomponent needed for something with moving parts, or can print an entire device that doesn’t require moving parts? 3D printing also makes it possible to create devices that are impossible to create with subtractive manufacturing, such as a tablet computer that is a single solid block of plastic in which every circuit is embedded, the entire surface is simultaneously a display and a camera, and which is completely impervious to water, dust, sand, and effectively indestructible under most environmental conditions, which can be made for pennies per unit.

It can also print stem cells to manufacture organs, as Organovo has already proved. By mid decade, it could eliminate the need to have transplants, by simply printing out a new organ from the patient’s stem cells. By decade’s end, we could even be using it routinely for minor cosmetic surgeries. Want pointed ears like Spock’s? Just print them out, and have your surgeon replace your ears with the new pointed ones, and he’s even likely to use more stem cells to speed heal the wounds, using a layer of stem cells between your skull and the new ear to create new tissue in a matter of hours, instead of weeks. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But, let me ask you this. What’s the difference between growing a heart for a human, and growing a steak? They are both possible to produce with the correct stem cells, so what really separates the ability to create medically viable living organs, and the ability to create delicious tissue from a cow?

Not really much at all. Once we’ve solved the problems of making organs, making rib-eyes will be a walk in the park. Yes, there are numerous issues that need to be solved for mass production, but we are making such enormous progress in the field of bio-printing that it seems likely we could see “food printers” become a reality by 2020 as well. That’s not to say they will be commonplace, or that they will have eliminated the need for agriculture or the cattle industry, but functional commercial units by that time are quite possible.

But even as marvelous a possibility as that is, it’s still not why 3D printers will be so majorly disruptive. It’s the fact that additive manufacturing will eradicate the entire concept of “stores” as places you “go to” to “buy stuff.” You see, while we will start off with large manufacturing companies developing and building massive and large scale printers to make cars and airplanes and ships, for the “average customer”, it’s kind of pointless to stock a store full of small items that could be printed on demand. It’s a waste of money to pay a clerk to stock the shelves, a waste of space to have a physical store, and a waste of time to ship an item from a central location. While we will start out with printers in the hands of manufacturers, they won’t stay there, and it won’t be because we demand personal manufacturing devices. It’s going to be because as 3D printers become commonplace, manufacturers are going to realize that they can cut out the middlemen. There’s no need to make a product, store it, ship it, pay taxes to import or export it, or even keep an inventory when a customer can simply buy the product from your website and have it printed out right in their own home. We will start out with factory based printers, then shift to store based printers, and end up with home manufacturing units.

Did you grasp the inevitable logic of this occurrence, or did your mind immediately jump to dismiss its possibility? If you’re like most people I’ve discussed this with previously, you’ve probably missed the single factor that makes this inevitable. Cost-cutting. Look at this from the manufacturer’s side. The only cost they have incurred is the R&D cost of designing an item, and the cost of running a website. They don’t even have to concern themselves with obtaining the raw materials to make an item from, nor do they have to pay a staff to run the printers, pay the electric bills to run the printers, rent a building to house the printers, pay a transporter to haul the products to market, have a warehouse to store extra products. In fact, they will have put ALL of these issues off on the customer. All that they will have to be concerned about is designing a product, testing a few dozen prototypes to fix the rough edges, and viola, a market ready product at minimal cost that need only sell a few thousand copies to pay off design fees, at which point everything else is pure profit.

If I have faith in anything, it’s in corporate greed. Once it’s cheap and easy to put a 3D printer in every home, and eliminate every cost of manufacturing to the “manufacturer” by passing it on to the customer, major corporations will get it done in a heartbeat. And they won’t give a damn about the consequences, because the only concern will be the profit of the moment.  CEOs will be all too happy about the billions they will save by making their companies cost nearly nothing to run, while still selling the same number of products at the same price they used too.  It’s all too predictable.

But the fact will still remain that by doing so, those very same corporations will be destroying themselves. They will be counting on their brands to continue carrying the same weight they did in the industrial era, and they will assume that by eliminating costs, they will be able to keep on charging the same price while making almost pure profit. And they will be right, at first. Humans are nothing if not creatures of habit. In fact, if you look at the rise and fall of Second Life as a business platform, you’ll see a real life example of what will inevitably occur. Hundreds of Big Name businesses went to Second Life expecting to be as successful there as in first life, but since the object creation ability in SL gives the little guys the exact same ability to compete as established companies, they had a rather difficult time competing. Branding just doesn’t have the same impact when anyone with a little Photoshop knowledge, and a smidgen of talent can offer a product of equal quality for a fraction of the cost. There were many other factors as well, but one part of the SL story is that the big corporations went in expecting to be the big dogs, and found that they were just another member of the pack.

And once there’s a printer in every home capable of making almost any product, there’s absolutely nothing that will stop someone from deciding they don’t care about a brand, but will be quite happy with a knock-off that does exactly the same thing, but costs almost nothing. So when people start realizing that anyone can design a product, and sell it online exactly like a large corporation, that “name brand” is going to mean less and less, just like it did in Second Life. By pushing the cost of manufacturing onto the consumer, corporations will open themselves up to competition from every quarter. Subtractive manufacturing requires massive resources to be competitive. Additive manufacturing will cost nearly nothing. And unlike subtractive manufacturing, a product doesn’t need to sell millions of copies to be successful. This will be true regardless of what the product is, be it an electronic device, or a new type of roof shingle, or even a new biochemical concoction, like a steak with garlic glands that activate when you cook it.

You will, of course, be thinking that the big corporations won’t make it that easy — after all, they thrive on preventing competition — and you’d be right. I fully expect every effort will be made to try and lock customers into “exclusive contracts” that would force the end user to buy a different printer for every brand name, and to create “DRM” for printer designs and products. But if the iPhone taught us anything, it’s that where there is a will, there is a way. “Jailbroken” printers that are “DRM free” will hit the market within hours to weeks of the corporate ones, as well as DIY printers like RepRap, and the open source market will eat them alive. I’m sure that like the MPAA and RIAA, a few sensational cases of prosecution by big companies against various open source products that are “too similar” to their “proprietary design” will make the news, but the sheer volume of competition will overload the ability of the courts to keep up. The public will ignore the random few who get raked over the coals, and before you know it, the corporations will go bankrupt as product “costs” trend towards zero.

The cost won’t actually reach zero, because you will have to pay for the power and the raw materials needed to supply your 3D printer.  But there are other factors that are likely to make those expenses minimal, among them numerous advances in such areas as solar, hydrogen fueled devices, ultracapacitance batteries and eventually perhaps various flavors of fusion for the power required, and developments in materials design too numerous to list. However, I’m going to stress something here — a reason why the “open source” movement is going to do so well against the big corporations in this domain.  Subtractive Manufacturing needs “workers” to man the factories. But Additive Manufacturing is more or less 90% automated. There will be no need for “workers” or “factories”, and thus no need for humans to be those workers. The “open source” DIY movement will overwhelm the big corporations simply because with so many people out of work, making no income or minimal income, they will have little choice but to buy the “cheap knockoffs” and “almost free” designs. By “cutting costs” so drastically by eliminating factories, warehouses, delivery systems, and stores, the big corporations will also be eliminating the “consumers” who they depend on to make those billions, because those “consumers” are the very same people they are firing in order to maximize profits. In their quest to wring one more bonus out of the market, they are in the process of killing their own cash cow. And with so many people out there jobless, where do you think they will turn to try and make money? With a few tutorials on product design, software assistants for making a web page and free 3D CAD systems like Google’s Sketchup, you’re going to see a flood of new products being made available to anyone with a 3D printer. The “Gate” that currently exists that limits new product design will have come crashing down, and Joe Schmoe from Idaho will be on an equal footing with those “brand names”.

Now, this is not going to take place overnight, but I would be willing to bet it will take less than a decade from the time that Additive Manufacturing becomes a “commercial manufacturing process” (probably adopted by the electronics manufacturing industry first, due to the need for shorter and shorter product development times between “generations”), and the home 3D manufacturing unit. At the current rate of progress, that starting date is likely to be within the next few years. There are already companies in the process of setting up those first additive manufacturing factories as I write this, and as I mentioned above, the Army is already researching the ability to use 3D printers in the field for immediate creation of parts for repairs. This is already much too far along to view as anything but a near certainty.

Perhaps I’ve already scared you half to death, because if my prediction is right, it’s going to mean a lot of people will be out of work — but there’s another aspect I’d also like you to consider.  You may have heard of the term “scarcity economy,” and its opposite, the “post-scarcity economy.”  In brief, in our current economy, value is determined by how “scarce” any given product is.  But if your printer can print just about anything, from food to electronics to household furniture — then what can be defined as “scarce?” Right now, that printer might only be able to print using plastics and dyes and other simple materials, but it should be obvious that we will be refining those materials and enabling those printers to print ever more complex objects. As other innovations such as nanoelectronic computers are perfected, the complexity of both what can be printed, and what it is possible to design, will increase exponentially. Even as Additive Manufacturing is destroying many of the institutions of the Industrial Revolution that we have come to take for granted and even depend on for income, it will be providing ever greater access to resources and products at lower and lower costs, reducing the need for that income as we can meet our needs more cheaply. By the time the old economy of scarcity that we live in today has collapsed, Additive Manufacturing will have helped give rise to the Economy of Abundance. It’s not the only development moving us towards that future, and it will not be a smooth transition by anyone’s estimation, and there will be many trials and tribulations along the way. But that’s been true of every major paradigm shift in human history, from the discovery of tool making to the Industrial Revolution.  Step by step, kicking and screaming in protest all the way, we still keep walking down that road towards a better  future.