Buy online, manufacture at home

The way we buy things (or don’t buy them) has changed a lot in the last decade or so. We stopped buying CDs. Now that our Internet connections are fast enough, we’ve really slowed down on buying movies, too. And the emergence of practical e-readers means a lot fewer people are buying books now too. All of this is part of the reason why there’s probably a Borders closing near you, and there are suddenly a lot less of what we used to call record stores too.

But there’s something even bigger looming overhead. 3D printing. Ars Technica has a piece about its legal implications.  Rather than rehash that, I’d rather talk about some of its other implications, including why you should care at all.

The whole idea of 3D printing may be odd to some people. That’s probably because “printer” is a bit of a misnomer, though to the computer that’s exactly what the device looks like. But instead of shooting paper onto ink, it “prints” with plastic, and it can work in three dimensions rather than just two.

It isn’t something you can just run over to the nearest big-box store and buy yet. But it’s not out of reach either. There are places that will sell you one for $1,500. A tinkerer who’s willing to buy some parts and assemble it all can get in the game for a little over $500. It’s not a casual purchase just yet, but it’s well within the means of a hobbyist. Twenty years ago, a laser printer cost that. Ten years ago, a color laser printer cost that. Today, almost anyone who wants one can afford either. The harder part in most cases is convincing someone that they would want one.

And that’s the challenge with a 3D printer too. At this point you’re either mad at me because I haven’t told you yet where you can get one of these 3D printers (Reprap.org), or you’re trying to figure out what on earth you would do with one.

Here’s what you’d do with one. If you want or need something made of plastic, instead of driving to the store and buying it, or going to a web site and buying it and waiting a couple of days for it to arrive, you’ll visit a web site, click on what you want, (maybe) pay for it, and then your 3D printer fabricates it for you. It fabricates small items in a matter of minutes; larger items might take an hour or two.

The example I hear over and over is dishwasher parts, but there’s really no limit. There’s an American Flyer train sitting on my mantel right now because it looks nice. It doesn’t run, because it’s missing a wheel. Nobody makes a replacement wheel because there isn’t enough demand for them. A machinist could make a suitable replacement, but that would cost more than the train is worth, so it sits. But if I could design the wheel on my computer and print it, it would probably cost $2 worth of plastic. That’s worth it. I’d prefer a metal wheel, but to me, a plastic one is better than none at all because it makes the difference between looking at it on a shelf and being able to run it from time to time. I could design the part, use it to fix my train, then I could offer it to others.

It changes everything, because suddenly, quantity becomes irrelevant. Right now it isn’t worth making something if there aren’t thousands of other people who want it. But if everyone owns a little factory attached to their computer, it doesn’t really matter much. Parts for anything imaginable will become available again, and fast.

There’s threat and opportunity here. Ars Technica did a good job of discussing the threat. But one also can’t overlook the opportunity.

Inventors and experimenters will be able to design and build objects, then share them with the world. Without factory overhead, one won’t have to achieve nearly the economies of scale that are necessary today in order to manufacture and sell things. Repair people will have access to (eventually) millions of parts to fix anything imaginable.

And it doesn’t have to just be used for exotic repair parts or hobbyist stuff either. Your dishwasher melted your spatula? Walk over to your computer and let it fab you a new one in less time than it takes to run to the store.

It’s going to change the world. Laser printers changed publishing by making it possible for almost anyone to do it. VCRs (and later DVD players) changed the way movies are distributed. This thing could do the same thing to manufacturing that both of those earlier inventions did to their industries. Or it could be even bigger than that, on the order of the printing press.

The question is how many legal wars will it start on the way to getting there.

4 thoughts on “Buy online, manufacture at home

  • April 6, 2011 at 10:35 pm
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    I’m looking forward to the day, possibly twenty years out, when this technology can print electronics. Printing a new MP3 player is, as you say, much quicker than ordering one. Digital Rights Management becomes a bigger issue.

    I can also see personalization coming into play. Say you’re browsing and find a ring you like. You buy the generic pattern for a ring and your computer (browser?) knows your finger size and automatically configures the pattern. Same with eyeglasses.

    But I don’t see how this technology will be able to create clicky springs, or vacuums. Or to use metal or glass to print with, at a reasonable price.

    Of course, I remember somebody famous saying that 640K was enough for any computer. Mr. Bill, that heartless genius, was wrong. There is a chance I’m wrong, too.

    • April 7, 2011 at 7:28 am
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      Yes, I can see DRM being an issue. Sometimes the creator may only want the end user to use it once.

      I don’t see it doing metal or glass either, at least not early on. The melting points of those is much higher than for plastic. Some parts can be milled and some cut with a laser. Those can be computer controlled too. Complex objects probably would require parts made by several machines and that could be impractical to do at home but it still could revolutionize distribution. Imagine if there’s a shop down the street with all the machines that manufacture the parts for a fee, and offers assembly.

      And yes, I want a laser cutter/engraver desperately, but that’s still priced well beyond what I can afford.

  • April 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm
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    They already have machines that do metal. I believe the metal starts as a powder and is sintered into a solid via high powered laser. Very expensive and not for production use yet, but stereo-lithography (the first type of plastic printing) started out very similarly.

    • April 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm
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      I did not know that. Thanks for sharing!

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