The 3D Printing Revolution: Implications and Importance

By Joseph Gelman


Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439 has been regarded by many as the greatest (or perhaps the defining) innovation of the Modern Age.

The next paradigm shift in the replication of information would not come until two networked computers in a DARPA research facility transmitted a message across the hall.

With the birth of the internet came the unprecedented ease of duplicating and sharing information. This revolution was made possible by divorcing information from the material world.

Instead of a document being bound to a single sheet of paper or a musical recording being bound to a disc, the information existed independently of the medium and could thereby be replicated independently of said medium as well.

This was necessary because our ability to duplicate information was far more advanced than our ability to replicate material.

Even the modern assembly line, with its use of interchangeable parts and automation, is remarkably barbaric. In fact, when compared to the advancements of information replication, it would seem analogous to the hand copying of the alpine monks so many centuries ago.

The initial instructions to create the object in question are laboriously copied, mostly (if not entirely) by hand. Even the interchangeable parts must be painstakingly arranged into the final product.

In light of this, imagine the monumental importance of an innovation on the scale of Gutenberg’s printing press for the replication and dissemination of material objects.

Such an invention would come to define a new epoch of human history.

What if I told you that such an invention exists? In that case, I would be talking about a machine that could replicate material objects with the same automation and efficiency of the printing press — in other words, a 3D Printer.

While 3D printing has technically existed for the last half century, the technology has been rather limited.

The very first 3D printers were bulky, expensive and impractical. But much like the computer before them, the last three decades has seen them become remarkably robust, cheap and efficient.

The old 3D Printers could only produce objects from a limited set of materials and could only do so at a very low fidelity. In addition they were incredibly expensive.

With recent advancements in miniaturization and materials, 3D printers have become smaller, more robust and capable of creating objects with a variety of materials.

Yet, even now, the technology is in its infancy and has a seemingly infinite capacity for growth.

With such a potentially revolutionary device showing so much promise, it seems necessary to attempt to anticipate the possible problems it may present as well as the world-changing benefits it may provide.

Copyright Complications

It is no coincidence that the very first murmurings of copyright laws came almost immediately in the wake of the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.

Implicit in the idea of copyright is the ability for a given work to be copied in the first place.

While works were always capable of being copied, the fact that the task was incredibly difficult and slow, kept the concern from becoming a real problem.

However, once replication of written works became accessible and efficient, suddenly the potential problem became actualized — and it was a problem that needed to be addressed.

The first formal law to be passed that could be called copyright law was the so-called “Statute of Anne” by Queen Anne of England.

This law was a result of the total monopoly held by the printers unions over the replication of certain works. The law gave a set time where the copyright belonged exclusively to the author of the work, with the intended purpose being to “encourage wise men to compose and publish useful books.”

What the governments of the time were noticing was that the ability to copy a work indiscriminately robbed the author of potential rewards, and thereby discouraged them from producing works altogether.

As the ability to copy became more robust and the precedents for copyright laws grew, governments the world over instituted copyright laws of their own, and soon a brand-new and incredibly complex branch of law was born. An entire area of legislation essentially sprung up in direct response to new technology.

A similar legal panic would again set in if duplication of objects made its way into the digital realm.

The invention of digitization and widespread use of networked computers would mean an object could be copied an infinite number of times and distributed worldwide, with no cost or effort necessary.

In much the same way that the labor-intensity of hand-copying staved off the legal question of copyright until the printing press was invented, the labor intensity of the printing press had staved off further questions until a new technology made replicating a work even easier.

What then can be expected of 3D printing’s effect on the current state of copyright laws?

In addition to written works, copyright also defends works of art, music and design. Current technology has allowed for the replication of all of the information behind each of these, but not for their material.

The written word and music and movies can all be transcribed physically, but material objects have remained largely immune. Can you imagine pirating a toy or cellphone case in the same way today’s teenagers pirate music and movies. The potential copyright issues this might cause are staggering.

To get an idea of the potential for problems, it is important to understand two elements of copyright law; 1) it only applies to artistic and novel inventions, and 2) protection is granted to the author once the object exists in any tangible way.

Even the current problems posed by online piracy of music, movies and books, are largely covered by this definition of copyright. Most of the legal concerns only crop up once the question becomes who to sue for damages.

However, 3D printing creates the potential for much more fundamental copyright issues because it allows for the replication and distribution of objects whose eligibility for copyright is questionable.

One potential area of trouble is an object that has artistic elements as well as functional elements.

Remember that only artistic elements are eligible for copyright, and that most objects that can be replicated digitally are unarguably and completely artistic.

3D printing now opens up the possibility for objects with both functional and artistic attributes to be copied and distributed.

Certain objects in this category might simply not be artistic enough to be granted copyright, nor novel enough to be granted a patent. As such they would be totally unprotected from uninhibited copying and distribution.

The reason that this blurred line between patent and copyright has not been a problem up until now can be understood in the same way that copyright was not a problem up until the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.

That is, up until now, an object in this category would simply be too difficult and time consuming to copy on a large enough scale to threaten the original producer.

The cost would be so immense that it would be much more worthwhile for someone to simply buy the object than to go through all the necessary steps to copy its design and create it from scratch.

Now the possibility to copy the object cheaply and effectively looms and no legal solution to protect manufacturers is even being attempted.

Yet the possibility is getting closer and closer to becoming reality. While companies have used 3D printing for prototyping since the late 1980s, new advancements in the technology as well as increased access to the powerful computers needed to run such machines are now allowing 3D printers to become viable for an individual to own and use at will.

Currently, 3D printers are available for individual purchase (as of this writing, office supply giant made headlines by placing a $1,300 3D printer for sale on its website).

Although their price and difficulty to use relegate them largely to hobbyists, the technology is rapidly approaching the point where widespread ownership will be feasible.

This trajectory seems to almost exactly mirror the story of the personal computer. Whereas the first personal computers were largely owned by hobbyists, they have become absolutely ubiquitous over the course of a few decades.

In much the same way that the personal computer and laser printer put a printing press in the home of every individual, the coming 3D printing revolution will put a factory in everyone’s living room. This dramatic shift will not only create a whole new set of problems for copyright laws to address, it may fundamentally shake the foundation of our entire economic system.

Eroding Capitalism’s Foundations

Prior to the mid 19th century, the production of all but a few consumer goods was done in the home.

Maybe materials or even partly finished products were made by third parties, but for the most part all assembly was performed by the person who would use the final product.

However, in what many historians called the market revolution, this manufacturing reality began to change.

Many companies who made the raw materials needed for production of goods (a textile manufacturer for example) and then sold them to the individuals who would make them into finished products, realized that it would be remarkably more efficient and profitable to centralize the production in a single place.

This allowed the manufacturer to create a more valuable product and become more profitable while it allowed the consumer to purchase the product at a price that would most likely be lower than the value of the time it took for them to make that product from scratch.

As this idea spread, the factory became a fixture of the modern economy and would continue to influence the creation of the production of goods until the introduction of steam power and the industrial revolution caused all other methods of production to simply vanish.

The trend became so pronounced that it fundamentally changed the way in which our economy operated.

By the turn of the 20th century nearly no one lived off the goods they produced, instead they earned a wage by producing for others and could trade that wage for the goods they needed.

This increasing reliance on money and the market economy became the fundamental tenets of capitalism and the system upon which the Western world would come to define itself.

However, amidst the frenzy of change and prosperity this market revolution was creating, a Russian thinker named Karl Marx viewed this new Capitalism with a wary eye.

Marx argued that this new system took the control of the factors of production away from the individual and put them instead into the hands of a select few.

While the centralization of production meant freedom from the need to produce what was needed for survival, this freedom came at the cost of an unequal bargain between those who owned the factors of production and those who did not.

Although the political ideologies Marx inspired have tried and failed to correct this imbalance, this does not diminish the accuracy or veracity of his observations.

The current market economy appears to operate smoothly due to the limited ownership of the means of production. While many might disagree with Marx’s notion that this relationship is immoral or abusive, it is fairly difficult to deny that the dynamic does not exist.

What would become of capitalism if its foundation was suddenly pulled out from underneath it?

What if the very centralization of production that propelled it into prominence, were suddenly reversed over the course of a decade?

What if the individual once again owned the factors of production — if the factory and the home became synonymous?

These are once hypothetical questions made suddenly real by the introduction of 3D printing.


Imagine the case discussed before of the object that was unprotected either by copyright or patent.

The reason that the owner of the factory and all those who worked in it would be supported by you (and millions like you) buying what they made was because you did not own the factors of production; and therefore, it made more economic sense for you to buy the object rather than produce it yourself.

Enter the 3D printer and suddenly the value that supported an entire factory’s worth of workers vanishes.

Instead of being required to pay the cost to employ the laborers, rent the factory, buy the raw materials, market the product and manage the whole process (and profit on top of that), all you need to pay for is the minute cost of raw materials.

Best of all you receive it immediately, and you could even customize it to your specification!

The radical decentralization of manufacturing capabilities would wreak total havoc on the capitalism’s modus operandi.

Slowly at first, but inevitably eventually, manufacturing would see a decline that would dwarf the current casualties it has sustained over the past few decades.

In addition, the dizzyingly vast and profitable transportation networks and supply chains once required to transport goods would watch helplessly as they were outclassed in every way by the simple fiber-optic cable.

Surely not all manufacturing nor all supply chains would die overnight.

First of all the 3D printers themselves and the raw materials they required would still need to be made and transported. In addition, there would still be the need for the very complex or very large objects to be created outside the home.

However, the current limitations of 3D printing are constantly being usurped by the progress of the technology, and even the rudimentary 3D printing technology would fundamentally alter the world if its use became widespread.

The Great In-Sourcing

One of the most important economic phenomena of the 21st century has been outsourcing.

As communication technology grew more capable and robust, many companies in the developed world realized that they could capitalize on the glut of cheap labor and lack of regulations in less developed nations overseas.

The turn of the century saw an unprecedented wave of outsourcing that began marginalizing the manufacturing sectors in more developed nations.

On the flip-side, fledgling developing countries with large, poor, and unskilled populations like India and China experienced meteoric economic growth.

This trend helped shape our current economic reality.

Among the chief concerns of the west are crippling unemployment and large debts to major exporters like China. Many economists fear what might happen if this trend continues along its current course and developing nations like the U.S. and E.U., as well as international trade organizations such as NAFTA, are scrambling to enact legislation and policies to curb these trends.

As of right now, most efforts to decrease outsourcing have failed, but the solution may come from an unlikely place — 3D printing.

While the evasion of regulations and taxes might be part of the reason that companies go through the trouble of outsourcing, the primary reason is the cost of labor in their home country.

High standards of living and powerful, organized unions make the cost of labor so high that it is more cost effective to manage employees thousands of miles away and then ship what they produce back than it is to hire domestically.

In addition, developing countries have very high-baseline education standards that make unskilled laborers particularly scarce.

3-D printing on a large scale would eliminate the root causes for outsourcing, and might even spur a rapid reversal of this trend.

Insourcing is a trend that has already been occurring. According to a 2012 article in Atlantic magazine, many companies have started insourcing their once outsourced business operations due to a slew of factors, including;

“Rising third-world wages, recognition that many off-shoring costs were large and hidden, rapid consumer product innovation and shrinking design/manufacture to market times, reduced manufacturing costs flowing from integrating skilled workers into the product design teams (dramatically cutting assembly times and complexity), increasing overseas fuel and transportation costs, falling energy costs in the US, increasing US labor productivity, and union flexibility.”

However, the article claimed that despite the growing list of reasons that make outsourcing even more deleterious than before, only a small handful of industries will ever be able to insource effectively.

The majority of manufacturing sectors (like consumer goods, toys, non-designer clothing and electronics) are simply too reliant on cheap labor to ever make the switch.

The remarkable thing about 3D printing is that it would make labor in precisely these industries irrelevant altogether.

While current 3D printing technologies might have a hard time entering more advanced or specialized industries in their current state, they are already more than capable of drastically decreasing the amount of unskilled labor required by the very industries that are so very dependent upon that labor in the first place.

If there is already a reversal in the trend of outsourcing despite this one enormous factor, imagine if that barrier suddenly vanished?

If cheap labor made it financially prudent to spend money managing employees and transporting goods overseas, imagine how quickly the trend would reverse if they could manufacture the same products domestically at a fraction of the cost? The vast demand for labor in developing countries would dry up in a matter of a decade or less.

While this would most certainly be a boon for developed nations, it would absolutely devastate the already struggling developing economies.

The seemingly insatiable demand of the west for unskilled labor that was lifting these countries out of poverty would vanish, and so would the already dim economic prospects of those that were the worst off.

In regions of the world where the crushing weight of poverty already creates an environment of social and political tensions like violence, unrest and corruption, how much worse might these situations become with a sudden change in economic tides?

Neo-Capitalism

An alternate outcome of the radical decentralization of manufacturing that 3D printing might cause is the reinvigoration of the capitalist model.

It may be unwise to underestimate the adaptive capacity of the market and its constituents.

There have been murmurs of doomsday economic predictions (like the one outlined in the previous section) since the earliest days of industrial automation.

Kurt Vonnegut’s first ever novel Player Piano, predicted a dystopian socialist future brought about by rampant mechanical automation. This was in 1952, and the past 60 years has not seen his prediction pan out.

In fact, capitalism has emerged from the rapidly changing turn of the century not only unscathed, but empowered.

The internet revolution and the personal computer put an unprecedented amount of productive capacity in the hands of individuals; yet instead of dealing capitalism a crushing blow, the proliferation of computing power and information technology led to a flowering of entrepreneurial ventures and imaginative new business models and applications.

While the information age may have marginalized the manufacturing sectors of the labor force, it undoubtedly created more jobs than it usurped and fueled an economic surge in its wake.

3D Printing might shake up the status quo of capitalism, but instead of toppling the system, it might usher in a capitalist renaissance and may redefine the role of labor and blur the line between the creator and the consumer.

The Crowd, The Cloud and Open-Source Everything

Over the course of the loud, disruptive revolution brought about by the internet and personal computer; a silent, but equally important revolution was occurring in its wake.

By the 1990’s, Bill Gates had already proven that one could make millions by creating and selling proprietary software; however, in 1991 a man named Linus Torvalds decided to forgo any financial opportunities and create a completely free and open operating system called Linux.

In the 20 years since, the Linux operating system has innovated at the same speed (or even faster) than software platforms being developed by dedicated paid employees.

It has done all this based on the unpaid volunteer labor of amateurs and hobbyists around the world. It has also inspired countless smaller software projects based upon the same principles.

While Microsoft has fought piracy and Apple has closely guarded its software architecture, Linux has no legal team and actively encourages copying, sharing and modification.

The open-source model has proved that an unhindered democratic approach can lead to remarkable innovations.

While open source as a philosophy has caught on, its applications have been limited due to what types of things that can be dissected and collaborated on.

Due to the ease with which software can be edited, shared and copied it has been a prime candidate for open-source innovation. Conversely, since objects in the material world do not have source code that can be shared in this way, open source innovation for manufactured goods has remained a pipe-dream.

3D Printing would remove all of these barriers.

It might be that in the near future hobbyists from around the world play an active role in creating and innovating the newest power drill or mobile phone.

Instead of griping on an internet forum about a new feature they would like to see, they can edit and prototype the innovation themselves and report back on the result.

In addition, as 3D printers become more robust and capable of creating structures of increasing complexity, it may be possible that this rapid, open-source innovation might spread to technologies like solar panels or micro-chips.

Although technologies for 3D printing at such small scales and pin-point accuracy are only in their infancy, great strides are being made into 3D printing at the molecular and even biological level.

Technologies already exist for printing complex compounds molecule by molecule and printing organic tissue cell by cell.

Engineers at MIT have reported groundbreaking results in efforts to print a piece of cow muscle from scratch. Imagine the implications for food production and distribution if your hamburger could literally be printed at your local McDonalds.

Even more exciting is the possibility that a lab could use a patient’s stem cells to print them a new heart from nothing.

What about new designer drugs being printed molecule by molecule? Not only would these innovations give scientists and doctors an unprecedented level of control, it would allow an open-source style of collaboration to be applied to areas where it would be embraced and might yield earth-changing innovations.

In addition to accelerating the rate of innovation, such capabilities would allow nearly anyone with a 3D printer and a broadband connection to contribute to society and reap the benefits of doing so.

Micro-loan initiatives like Kiva and Kickstarter already allow nearly anyone to seek small scale funding from individuals online. 3D printing might democratize the access to manufacturing and distribution capabilities in a similar way.

Proliferation of these technologies might see a flowering of micro-entrepreneurs not only in the developed world, but in poorer countries as well.

The elimination of the unskilled laborer in developing nations (as highlighted in previous paragraphs) might force those countries and its citizens to refocus their energies on educating their citizens and fostering a less dependent economic strategy.

China has already shown what can be done with collective government effort and the right amount of incentive.

In the face of the opportunity of outsourcing, China went from a country of rural farmers to an urbanized industrial powerhouse in the space of twenty years.

If transforming a country of factory workers into small business owners presented the same degree of economic opportunity, it would not be a stretch to imagine that the Chinese government would throw all of their legislative weight behind such an initiative.

Not only would this shift have the potential to lift millions from helpless poverty. The increase in overall levels of education would help to alleviate many of the other socio-political problems that plague developing nations.

In fact, some economists have argued that the “Global South” has stayed mired in socio-political strife for so long precisely because of the lack of incentive for citizens to seek education and for governments to provide it; a lack of incentive that is caused by the West’s demand for unskilled labor.

The fact that many goods that China manufactures and exports are sold back to its citizens for exorbitant prices (a la the iPhone) are particularly telling indications that this relationship is holding the developing world back.

An example of the beginnings of a shift towards broader access to education can be found in India.

While China is the world’s main recipient of outsourced manufacturing, India has a similar status for outsourced programming.

The spike in demand for computer software has molded not only India’s economic reality, but its socio-political reality as well.

This is perhaps best evidenced by India’s groundbreaking 2009 policy called National Policy on Skills. This policy was the government’s response to the rapid transformation of India to a skill-based economy. The NPS created government-run and supported institutions to foster and encourage this transition.

While it used to be the norm for India’s best and brightest to be shipped off to institutions in America or Europe, many are opting to stay in India and attend one of the growing number of specialized technical schools in their home-country.

This is significant because local institutions are cheaper, thus making opportunity available to a growing number of poorer Indians. Another important benefit is that this trend keeps Indian talent in India.

The majority of bright Indians who study abroad never return home, thereby denying India of their talent and Indians of the economic benefits they may provide.

As a result of NPS, and similar initiatives in the private sector, talented Indians are staying in India and propelling their country towards broadening economic horizons.

Unprecedented Equality?

With cases like India as well as South Korea in mind, the potential impact of 3D printing on developing nations becomes a lot less bleak.

Instead of destroying their economic prospects, the sudden decline in outsourcing 3D printing will almost certainly cause might redirect their economic trajectories in a beneficial way.

By increasing access to, and emphasis on, entrepreneurship and higher education, this change might propel developing countries onto the world economic stage and give their ballooning populations access to the myriad benefits of economic prosperity.

To compound these positive effects, remember that 3D printing will also accelerate the progress of (and access to) medical and technological innovations.

So, in addition to a more educated world, 3D printing might also bring about a healthier, cleaner, and more advanced society. Perhaps the most profound caveat to this optimistic outlook is that it will not be a devil’s bargain — the progress of some will not come at the expense of others.

The sweeping changes that 3D printing could potentially bring about would be universal.

Let us return to the example we began with.

When Gutenberg first introduced his printing press it might have only existed in the hands of few, but the resulting changes it wrought upon the world were shared by nearly everyone.

The spread of printing, and subsequent spread of information, helped fuel a lasting age of innovation.

Similarly, the personal computer and the internet first only existed in military and college research facilities; but as their availability spread, their influence quickly outpaced the spread of the technology itself.

Paradoxically, modern computers could not have been made without the assistance of older computers.

This very well might be the story of 3D printing. One can imagine the next generation of 3D printers being assembled with the assistance of current 3D printers.

Unlike certain innovations which are part of a paradigm, advancements like Gutenberg’s press, the internet and 3D printers shift the paradigm itself.

They pave the way for countless innovations and hold almost infinite promise.

Although this essay contains a fair amount of speculation, I have tried best I can to base my predictions off of historical examples and current events.

That is why, although I am far from certain, I am fairly optimistic that 3D printing will play an integral role in the future of human innovation and will pave the way for a more equal, healthy and advanced society.

In other words, if we ever have a flying car, my bet is that it will have been made with a 3D printer.

Sources

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