3D printing as the next “equalizer technology”?


(Image courtesy of Nike, showing their partially 3D-printed shoe Vapor Laser Talon)

Ever since I watched the last part of the Zeitgeist film series I have been thinking about how 3D printing might affect the world in the future. My biggest hope is that when the technology has advanced enough to make printing of quite advanced objects very cheap, today’s status associated with owning specific objects will seem ridiculous.

Why pay a hundred dollars for a pair of shoes if you can print them for one dollar?

However, I’m not hoping for a world where everyone mindlessly prints everything they want just to end up with thousands of pairs of shoes in their wardrobe. Instead I’m hoping for a world where it becomes meaningless to print everything you want since you know that you can get it whenever you “need” it.

If something is free or very cheap, you won’t become obsessed with owning it like it is today with many highly commercialised items.

For example, in countries where clean drinking water is available very conveniently and for a very low cost almost no one thinks about the price of it. In fact, I think many (most?) people considers it as something completely free! Still, this doesn’t mean that people waste water. Instead they use it quite efficiently since there is no status/meaning associated with spending/wasting it mindlessly. On the contrary, if you do spend/waste it meaninglessly, other people would probably consider you to be quite irresponsible or even call you an idiot.

When anyone can acquire anything it becomes meaningless to acquire more than you need.

Sure, some people will always associate some status with owning something “real” or something that cannot (currently) be 3D printed very cheaply, but the number of things this is valid for will decrease as technology advances.

Furthermore, when you think about it, what does “real” mean when almost everything we buy and own is manufactured (by machines) in a factory? Considered as a black box, a factory is nothing but a very big 3D-printer where input is the raw materials required and output is the manufactured objects.

Future things retaining some degree of status might be the same high status items as of today – for example real/natural pearls and diamonds instead of artificial ones – even though there is no rationality behind it.

Digitalizing physical objects by providing downloadable blueprints which can be feeded to a 3D-printing will most probably disrupt many physical object based businesses in the same way as the digitalization of music and movies have disrupted the music and movie business. New players arrive. New payment models arrive, but eventually all 3D-printable things will be made available for a flat rate monthly fee. There will probably also be a free – advertising sponsored – alternative where a small ad or logo will be added to everything you print.

It’s hard to say how long it will take before consumer 3D printers are good enough to produce some of the physical objects most coveted by consumers today, but it’s safe to say that the technology will follow all other new technologies adaption pattern. First big corporations will use it, followed by early adopters and then mainstream consumers.

Since I’m a fan of 3D-printing I would like to speed up the adoption process by suggesting a way to make state of the art 3D-printing available to mainstream consumers without having to wait until the technology becomes cheap enough.

It seems as if E-bay have similar thoughts since they have launched their EXACT-service in beta. This service allows customers to customize products and then have the products 3D-printed and sent to them via traditional shipping methods.

E-bay’s experiment is a small taste of the future, but I would like to take it a bit further. Why not build a “network” of state of the art 3D-printers covering the major cities of the world? This would allow consumers to “order” stuff online and then collect them at their nearest state of the art 3D-printing provider. This would also make it possible to “ship” 3D-printed objects all over the world in a much more efficient, cheap and environmentally frinedly manner since it would allow you to “send” the object (actually the object’s blueprint) over the Internet to the 3D-printer closest to the consumer and then print it there and then send it using local delivery/postal services for a fraction of the international shipping cost.

So, will 3D-printing disrupt the physical object business to such a degree that no more objects are created or that creative people will find other ways to make their living? Well, did musicians stop producing music after the advent of flat rate music subscription services? Did movie/tv studios stop producing movies?

Not at all! Personally I think this will unleash creativity in a revolutionary way, allowing anyone with a computer to create an physical object which can become instantaneously available all over the world at a very cheap price. Think “App Store” for physical objects…

Welcome to a brand new – truly creative – world!


About Henrik Bergström

Software developer who loves to learn and share knowledge.
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