There are a few Holy Grails on the Internet—things that thou shalt not touch because the Internet is still pretty much run by geeks. You can’t criticize the hilarity and hive mind intelligence of memes, even when they’re, you know, really stupid. You can’t discuss the potential reasoning behind DRM, even when, to be a little fair, the web is a fantasy land of copyright infringement.
But maybe, more than any of these, thou shalt not question the obvious, inevitable future of 3-D printing. Because as we all know, one day, there will be a 3-D printer in every home, and when you need a new watch, pair of shoes or perfectly mapped sculpture of your inner ear canal, presto!, just print it!
Well, I have bad news that will probably make a lot of intelligent people whom I respect very much shake their heads in disgust. 3-D printing is not "bigger than the Internet" or even as big as the Internet. 3-D printing is not the next home revolution. And that doesn’t mean I hate technology or democracy, it just means that idealism can’t always trump practicality.
While 3-D printing will excite hobbyists and disrupt many industries—and in fact, already has—its consumer application has been vastly exaggerated in ways that a lower cost and higher printing resolution won’t solve.
I want you to look around your office, house or apartment and ask yourself a question: Do you really need more things? Because that’s ultimately the promise of an at-home 3-D printer for the average consumer. You can produce any crap you can imagine, on command. Download friends’ crap. Upload your own crap. Plastic rings! Laminate bowls! Some-assembly-required bookcases that make Ikea look like heirloom furniture!
3-D printing doesn’t just come with per-use financial costs. It comes with a whole other "where am I going to put this thing" burden. 3-D printing might fail, not because it can’t quickly and easily create more crap, but specifically because it destroys the illusion that we need that much crap.
"Where am I going to put this thing," of course, might sound fine when you’re dealing in gemstones and marble busts. But the items you’ll be able to print at home, on a consumer device, will never rival what can be made at the industrial scale.
Because we aren’t talking about Amish-carved artisanal goods. This is mass production made smaller. When a regional manufacturer is printing toothbrushes on a $100,000 machine and you’re printing yours on a $100 machine, which of you is going to produce the better toothbrush? No doubt, one might argue that good old 2-D inkjet printing can be fairly indistinguishable from a professional job, so maybe 3-D printers could get so good that we couldn’t tell the difference. Even if that’s the case—and due to the complexity of materials in physical objects, I don’t believe it is—there’s a reason why people still get their photos printed at Walmart: Walmart will print them cheaper. It’s basic economics. Scale reduces cost, and the individual user will never have scale.
At the core of 3-D printing, I suspect that there is some deeper, even tacit belief: Just as the Internet made the world’s information available with a button press, so too can 3-D printing distribute the world’s objects to everyone. So a 3-D printer, even if not used all that often, is indispensable as a piece of democracy in action. It’s knowledge and freedom and empowerment in your hands.
Given that 3-D printers are already producing intimidating weaponry, there’s certainly some promise to its power as political disruptor. But 3-D printers have serious limitations to the have-nots in that they can only manipulate a few raw materials—and you always need those raw materials for printing. In other words, we can’t print a cheeseburger without first putting in the ground beef, lettuce, and tomato, just like we can’t print a syringe of vaccination without a big vat of refrigerated vaccines. And you know what? We never, ever will, because that’s the work of arranging matter at an atomic scale. That’s the Star Trek replicator, not the 3-D printer.
3-D printing represents a universal ideal, but that doesn’t make it the right product to ultimately empower that ideal. And iteration alone—printing in different colors of plastic, or sure, even durable metals—won’t change that.
The 3-D printer is not the next microwave, but it very well may be the next food dehydrator. It’s got incredible potential as that tempting gadget that you see on late night TV, use intensely for a week and then sell a decade later at a garage sale. For the average consumer—not the engineering-obsessed maker hobbyist—the best case scenario is that your 3-D printer is that old HP deskjet that we never use. Or it manifests as a hit, Easy-Bake-Oven-style toy for kids.
And that’s okay, my fellow geeks. Because for designers who already use 3-D printing to rapidly prototype the gadgets of tomorrow, or mass manufacturers who can use 3-D printing to diversify their scope, drive competition, and better customize products locally for consumers, 3-D printing really has and will change the world in a way that can absolutely trickle down to the rest of us. We simply don’t need to personally own this particular technology for it to change our lives.
[ILLUSTRATION: Paper via Shutterstock]