Why I think additive manufacturing is kind of a big deal

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing has been getting more and more press lately and I think is worth reading about. Simply stated, it’s called additive manufacturing because small bits of raw material are combined (by various means like sintering) to make a finished product. This is in opposition to what we now retroactively called subtractive manufacturing, where something like a block of aluminum would be machined down by removing material. The great advantage of additive manufacturing is that it allows for the creation of seamless structures that just were not possible before (for example, creating materials with bizarre holes and cavities).

I’ve been thinking about this from an historical perspective, and the change is sufficiently large and fundamental that a whole new industrial revolution may be upon us. That certainly sounds hyperbolic, so let me make my case:

In the Middle Ages, both the means and knowledge of production (the craftsman and the designer were one in the same) were highly localized. Goods were produced on a small scale for local markets, hence why we call it the cottage industry. This happened all over the place because life was highly local, so on a broad human scale there was a huge amount of repetition of specializations. We’ll say that manufacturing was distributive but knowledge was concentrated. While every town might have a cobbler, each cobbler was only as good as how much he knew.

With the advent of mechanization and the Industrial Revolution, new forms of energy like coal-powered steam allowed for huge increases in the rate of production. The printing press was an early example, where the introduction of machines allowed for printed pages to be produced vastly cheaper (and therefore were produced on a vaster scale). With new economic theories being produced by the like of Adam Smith, the principle of economies of scale came into existence. Now it was in a producer’s best interest, especially with the breakthrough of the assembly line, to concentrate manufacturing in as few plants as possible. This ultimately led to the massive factories of the modern world, like the Ford River Rouge Complex or the Boeing Everett Factory. There is a risk inherent in building such massive, singular facilities, as recent flooding in Thailand has shown.

The engineering and design of these massive plants is so specialized as to make replication virtually impossible save for the few select major competitors. Even if I had all the plans for an Intel fabrication plant, I couldn’t up and start producing modern microprocessors. Both manufacturing and knowledge are concentrated in the Industrial Age. There are machines in the plant that do one thing really well, but one thing only.

Aside from being materials specific, 3D printers are design agnostic. You bring your product as a computer file and the machine produces it as is. The sameness of Industrial-era products gives way to product customization of almost unlimited proportions. Not only customization, but additive manufacturing offers many new opportunities for innovation. But I think more importantly, since the designs that are fed into a machine are now just ordinary files on a computer, both knowledge and manufacturing are distributed. I can imagine in a not too distant future downloading a product and going to a local neighborhood fab shop or even in a home 3D printer creating precisely the widget that I want, customized precisely to my wants and needs.

Picture this scenario: You put your foot in front of a 3D scanner and get a precise map made. This geometry is used as the basis for a shoe made specifically for you, where you can now go online and choose from an nearly infinite combination of designs, colors, and materials. Now there’s no reason to produce massive numbers of shoes hoping that the customer will find something approximation what they have in mind. The individual has total freedom to choose or even design themselves.

What happens when the obvious next step comes about: The Pirate Bay of Things? Since objects have now been reduced to the information needed for their construction, which is just so many 1s and 0s, will whole industries be brought to their knees because their previously concentrated knowledge and skills have become distributed? Will we have open source objects, from cutlery to aircraft, ready to be printed by anybody, anywhere? Raw materials are virtually always cheaper than the finished product, so now you can build large stockpiles of the cheaper raw materials like metals and plastics near the fab facilities and have manufacturing be come as you please.

That, in a nutshell, is why I think additive manufacturing will be kind of a big deal.

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