Artificial Intelligence is going to bring profound changes to the world around us, particularly in how we optimize the use of resources. But there are other technologies that will have a significant impact on how the world works. 3D printing is one of them. Sure, it’s a gimmicky thing at the moment, and we have all heard about the possibility of printing our own replacement organs, but the potential of 3D printing goes far beyond that.
Beyond an amusing gimmick
Research in this area is exploding, and much of it, at the moment, is amusing, such as 3D printed chocolate, even protein-based outputs like burger patties. These printers have even built a concrete house. The applications are being explored at a large scale, even if only few of us have actually seen 3D printing appear in our lives.
End of existing production economics
The underlying promise of 3D printing is that it breaks an object down to into its constituent parts, even to the molecular level if necessary, and builds the goods we need and use directly from raw material. The practical promise is that this is bringing production much closer to the point of use. Goods no longer need to be manufactured on the other side of the world and shipped through a whole supply chain to reach a customer. The concept of a supply chain will be completely circumvented.
Purchasing a good in the future will mean downloading the specs into a 3D printer and wait for it to be produced. While Star Trek like replicators are a long way off, where every house has its own means of producing anything, the potential of 3D printers is closer at hand. Multipurpose 3D printers will require a slew of different raw materials, beyond what will be practical for residential purposes in the near term.
Production becomes a local affair
A community-based 3D printing functionality is more likely, a communal printing operation where people can go to do their printing. Libraries are already planning to provide this functionality, being the go to place for any printing and essentially becoming the production hub of the society they serve. My library already has a 3D printer open to the public, although the limited range of materials stops it from being useful.
Resources become local assets
Right now, the design, application and production using raw materials is largely separated from the use of the goods produced, and also the disposal. Bringing raw materials locally also brings attention to how materials cycle in our communities. Too much of our resource use is designed to exit the resource cycle, to be discarded in landfill, or worse, in our oceans. A local focus will change that dynamic, as will the different production requirements through a 3D printing model, bringing more attention to ensuring materials use is optimized.
It is not impossible to create a society with no waste. It requires change in how we do things now. It requires different production economics, and 3D printing provides the impetus for radically divergent production economics. Resources serve the local community, and remain a community asset. They won’t be dug out of the ground and shipped to China. On a local level, it will be easier to insist that the product we use have good design, utilizing resources that can be reclaimed and reused. Good, clever and conscious design has never been so important.
Camilla Urdahl works for unified communications company Unified Inbox, and will speak to strangers at events about communications strategies, new business models, and how best to accelerate innovation. Follow Camilla and her adventures on Twitter @CamillaUrdahl