It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Like many hackers I find the concept of 3D printing very exciting. For a quick look at 3D printing in action take a quick look at this video (don’t worry, I’ll wait here). What we see is a machine that can quickly manufacture a huge variety of physical objects – basically a Star Trek Replicator v1.0. When digital computers first arrived on the scene (mid 1940’s) most people probably didn’t forsee a day when each household would be chock full of computers. This is demonstrated nicely with a famous (mis)quote from the Thomas J Watson, president of IBM from 1914-56:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

Looking at the history, it took from the 1940’s till the mid 70’s for computer technology to be the domain of the technical hobbyist. Not long after that the work of the hobbyists was commercialized to start producing machines suitable for home use. Almost four decades later computers are almost disposable and we are looking at ubiquitous computing in the not to distant future.

The earliest 3D printing techniques is Stereolithography. This was first patented in the mid 80’s. By the mid Naughts 3D printing became within reach of the technical hobbyist with Open Source projects like RepRap and Fab@Home being created. This development timeline is much compressed compared to the timeline of digital computers. Looking at this history I don’t feel like I am going out on a limb to say that 3D printers are going to be commonplace in the average household soon.

Going back to digital computers for a moment, the difference between the computers of the 1940’s and today is incredible. What excites me most about 3D printing is not the state of the technology today, but where it is going. Today’s 3D printers can make fairly complex plastic objects, but people are working hard at building the next generation of these device to allow printing of circuit boards and more. Eventually these devices will be able to print almost anything, what a game changer that will be!

With the ability to manufacture many things in the home we’ll be able to download items from the internet. Suddenly people will be able to “pirate” physical objects. It’s hard to get more convenient than that. Traditional manufacturing will have to compete on price and/or quality. But as with computers, these printers will continue to improve in both price and quality, putting serious pressure on many factories. We will see many factories close their doors. This in turn will put huge pressure on businesses that support the global supply chain. The need to ship and truck physical items will slowly be scaled down. Physical retailers, already under huge pressure from online retail will be squeezed even more. Infact, online retailers will be in the same boat. If you can make it at home, why would you order it online?

So what happens when the manufacturing, logistics and retail industries start to shrink? What will all the people in these industries do for work? Will everyone eventually work in the service industry? Will society rethink the notion of a standard 40 hour work week? I don’t know the answer to this. All I know is that this technology is going to be BIG.

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine 🙂