Last week, crowds camped overnight at the Boylston Street Apple Store, desperate to be first to get their hands on the newest iPhone. Someday in the not-too-near future, those same fanboys and girls will instead be waiting by their computers. Apple will, after much hype (something at which it is excellent), post the designs for its latest gadget. They’ll pay a fee, download the plans, and watch as their 3D printers quickly build their toy. When finished, they’ll pick it up and turn it on, along with millions of others who just did the same thing.
When that happens, the Chinese economy will collapse.
In all likelihood, China’s economy will have collapsed well before 3D printers become sophisticated enough to print the guts of a mobile device. It’s a technology that’s been heralded for several years but now looks increasingly real. The Industrial Revolution was the era of mass production. Now, 3D printers will usher in the era of personal production.
It seems the stuff of science fiction, but check it out on Amazon.com. For $1,299 you can buy the Cubify Desktop Printer, a machine that creates objects right before your eyes — a full chess set, for instance. The blueprints for the objects are computer files; the printer follows those blueprints by precisely spraying thin layers of material. Granted, it seems crude and a bit silly right now. You can only print with plastics, the process can be slow, and $1,300 to create doo-dads you can find at the Dollar Store is excessive.
But just wait. Soon the machines will be able to print with anything: metals, paper, cloth, food, even living tissue — all of which have already been done by prototypes. There’s one school of thought that believes 3D printing will help bring manufacturing back to US shores. For a time, that may be the case. The better machines are costly and complicated; a local manufacturer will be able to print parts and assemble them for sale. But it’s a theory reminiscent of Federal Express’s failed 1984 bet on “ZapMail,” back when fax machines were expensive and rare. Two years and $317 million later, the service ended as low-priced fax machines made their way into offices around the country.
The same will happen with 3D printers: They’ll become cheaper, faster, and better. It is conceivable that eventually almost everything we now buy — particularly if it’s relatively small — will be manufactured in our homes. Want a new pair of jeans or the latest model of shoes? Print it at home; wear it tonight. And even better, the jeans or shoes can be customized exactly to your fit.
When we start using tableside 3D printers to make everything we wear, the textile industry will be transformed, becoming more about design than manufacturing. The overseas sweatshops that today manufacture clothing will close — better for our consciences, perhaps, but not so good for those for whom it’s the only job available. Shippers will lose business; boats and trucks will have nothing to carry. Retailers will shut down. Malls will be empty.
As with any technological advance, the benefits of 3D printing will be enormous. Improvements in productivity create wealth and in the long run everyone is better off. But that was true of the original Industrial Revolution, which wreaked havoc on a largely agrarian culture. There are many who still wish we could return to those times and there will be many who will resist this next revolution — and some voices are already being raised in warning. The 19th century Luddites tried to destroy the looms that were putting artisans out of work. Perhaps this time around we’ll see the CEOs of Aéropostale, Gap, and REI marching to ban home ownership of 3D printers. They won’t succeed, but the disruption they worry about will be real. There’s a new world coming, one that will profoundly shake the old.Tom Keane can be reached at email@example.com.