I read an amazing series of articles in the Economist about 3D printing hailing the 3rd industrial revolution. I often read the Economist cover to cover, but this issue is different. I devoured it. It got me thinking about just how much 3d printing will change the world, as we know it. What’s 3d printing? Even if you know, I’m betting you don’t know just how much we’re doing with it right now or how far it can go.
Now I’ve had technology called Synths in my writing for years. They are able to fab up food and items. I wasn’t the first. The Diamond Age, one of my favorite sci-fi novels of all time, had Matter Compilers. Stark Trek has Replicators. But every so often, sci-fi misses the true nature of the revolution. When change finally starts to materialize, it’s always fundamentally different than how we imagined it. Turns out Replicators are on their way already and they’re about to blow up how we think about manufacturing and how we buy things, as well as how we deal with Intellectual Property.
You probably know that 3D printers can rapidly create prototypes, but did you know they’re already making actual parts for everything from airplanes to shoes? They work by building layer after layer of something, creating a gear or a tube inch by inch. That’s why it’s often called additive manufacturing. They can’t make complex tiny machines with it yet, but it won’t be long before then can. Already, a company called 3D Systems put out a $1300 home printer, called the Cube. It’s simple. You can print up some jewelry and small items. It’s one small step for man, but it heralds amazing things to come.
The home printers and their industrial brothers will only get more complex and powerful with time. Right now, you can feed it a digital design and it goes to work crafting that item. It’s not fast, it might take over night, but it will get faster and faster. This means all kinds of things for society. Right now it might take 10s of thousands of dollars to get a one of a kind prototype through a standard manufacturer. They have to create a mold, fill it, get people to work on it, ship it. It all takes forever. Now people can rapidly spin up new ideas, from a digital file.
But it goes much further. Companies will be able to specialize in building highly customized products for individuals, something they could never do in the past. Already there are bio 3D printers that have printed out skin and tissues. In the not too distant future they’ll be able to print out organs from your stems cells. No more donors needed. You body becomes a series of replaceable interchangeable parts. We can rebuild you, better than you were before.
It goes farther than that. When everyone can just buy a digital design and fab up the next phone or laptop in their house, it changes how companies bring you products. Most will resist it at first. They’ll worry about piracy. And there will be piracy. All kinds of piracy, as major products are leaked onto the nets and passed around through whatever innovate distributed piracy net we can think of to thwart authorities in the next ten to twenty years. But a few companies will think ahead. They’ll realize they don’t need central plants anymore, or they only need a few. Products will never go out on warranty, because you can always fab up a new part for it. Companies can make money by coming out and installing it for you, if you like.
Certain large items, like cars will remain centrally manufactured, but the plants will get smaller and have more machines manning the posts. You’ll pick out a car with the exact specifications that you want, choosing from a massive range of a la carte choices and in a day or less you’ll have the exact car that you want. It will even be fabbed up in the dealers’ tanks. No more waiting or getting a car shipped from three states away because they need a black one with bucket seats and air conditioning.
It keeps going. Some 3D printers today can already scan an item and reproduce it. Now what happens to intellectual property if I can scan the latest phone and make it in my house? There’s even talk of scanning a broken item, where an algo can run against it to see how to produce a fixed version. Now things can be broken and rebuilt again and again.
3D printers are just the start. Eventually, we will get to the point where I see it in my stories. We fab things up from the chemical level, building molecules that are based on the molecular structure of the item. Then we get to the atomic level. Everything is made of atoms, so if it can scan the atomic layout of an object, we can recreate anything in the world, exactly as it is. Companies can create the perfect care and simply clone that car out a trillion times. It won’t be long before we are reconstructing body parts from the atomic level, or making exact replicas of your favorite food or the dog you lost as a kid. If we don’t fuck it up, which we usually do, by encumbering the process with baseless fear and coddling of outmoded business models, then we are beginning to talk about a post-scarcity society, where almost anything can be made in your house for cheap. Intellectual property gets all wacky. What happens when an atomic printer can scan an item, understand its atomic signature and then can recreate it? How can Coke protect the secret of Coke? You don’t need the heavily guarded recipe to make it any more. You just scan it. Lawyers from Coke are probably drafting legislation as they read this.
The only true limiter to this will be the raw materials we need to feed it. The Diamond Age had these machines tightly controlled, fed by centralized feeds. Remember that people in power will always try to find a way to centralize everything again and will add choke points and check points. That’s their nature. Of course, the true breakthrough in the Diamond Age comes when the hero figures out how to cut ties with the central drips. And as people push out past the boundaries of earth, it gets harder and harder to centrally control everything. Though of course, they will try, it’s in their nature. It reminds me of the bit from The Crying Game, when the frog helps the scorpion cross the river. Half way across the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that Mr Scorpion for now we both will drown?” says the frog. “I can’t help it,” says the scorpion, “It’s in my nature.”
My woman once asked me what was the one technology that made it possible for Star Trek’s society to live without money (well depending on which conflicting episode you watch)? That’s easy, I said. Replicators. Eventually you have an open source repository of all the things you really need to live and survive, plus a bunch of fun stuff you don’t. Nobody goes hungry then. Nobody wants for shoes or a way to communicate or a bike to exercise on. Nobody dies because they don’t have a coat. There’s even a chance I’ll get to see some of it in my lifetime. That’s something I never expected.