A couple weeks ago, I was curious to read yet another article about the much-heralded 3D printer revolution, "Crystal Ball Gazing: Amazon and 3D Printing." Only later did I realize that my skepticism from the outset betrayed my own confirmation bias that any remotely bibliocentric 3D printing story is based on the fallacious premise that ABS extruders will someday be as commonplace as inkjet printers. I happen to share TechCrunch columnist Jon Evans' opinion that additive manufacturing will not reprise the rise of 2D printing:
3D printing is not just 2D printing with another dimension added on. Yes, the names are very similar, but their uses are not even remotely analogous. We may reasonably conclude, therefore, that 1) 3D printing will not recapitulate the history of 2D printing, 2) as soon as you make an argument along those lines you lose all credibility and look like an idiot.
Evans' rant is a fair assessment to be sure, but it has little to do with the gist of the opinion piece, which postulated that Amazon is uniquely positioned to pioneer an on-demand 3D printing business model. VC Theodore F. di Stefano writes:
I'm not sure if Amazon would venture into manufacturing, but we do have a new industrial revolution on our hands today... Why would Amazon be interested in 3D printing? My guess that Amazon might be interested is because it is currently adding warehouses throughout the United States with a not-so-long-term goal of being able to offer same-day delivery to its customers. With warehouses strategically located throughout the country, it would be able to set up 3D printing facilities within them, thus making three-dimensional products (manufactured products) conveniently available to major population centers.
From the outset, di Stefano clearly states that he admires Amazon not for selling boatloads of books but for extending its business model to include virtually every consumer product imaginable, and for investing in physical infrastructure in kind, citing their network of warehouses as a viable spaces for local fabrication. Jeff Bezos' billion-dollar idea, after all, has far surpassed its original domain of books, and as a web company that deals in physical inventory, Amazon's economy of scale marks a unique opportunity for distributing 3D-printed white label products... assuming, of course, it's profitable. This, of course, is di Stefano's hypothesis, where Amazon is less a bastion for publishing (2D or three) and more a massive online marketplace.
And to bring the argument full circle, design veteran Kevin Quigley actually made a similar point in an excellent essay contra blind optimism regarding 3D printing for the masses (which I've referred to before). Quigley recapitulates a personal history of digital fabrication to arrive at the conclusion that 3D printing will never be efficient (read: inexpensive) enough to come anywhere near the adoption rates of 2D printers. Rather, he speculates that the technology might be best suited for a megaretailer like IKEA... reaffirming di Stefano's case for Amazon.
Yet Evans' point stands:
...use cases, adoption rates, economic impact, etc., will be nothing like those of the 2D printers you know and love (or, more likely, hate). Yes, even though the names are so similar... please stop using that ridiculous and thoroughly inaccurate analogy.
In this sense, Amazon's unmatched scale is precisely why it doesn't make sense for them to pursue 3D printing—the technology is best suited to small batches of niche or otherwise custom production runs. A far-reaching distribution network is not perquisite; rather, accessibility is paramount.
Which leads us back to Phillip Torrone's suggestion that we ought to "rebuild and retool public libraries and make 'TechShops,'" per the title of a March 2011 blogpost on Make. "To me, public libraries—the availability of free education for all—represent the collective commitment of a community to their future... a commitment to educating the next generation. [As such,] the role of a public library should also adapt over time, and that time is finally here." While reality has been slow to catch on—Make subsequently noted that Cleveland listened, as did Reno; we recently reported on Adelaide following suit—it's worth reading, as Torrone certainly makes a very thorough argument for repurposing the public stronghold of the printed word.
Nevertheless, other commentators remain skeptical: in a blogpost entitled "Could 3D Printing Save the Public Library System?," public library manager Ian Anstice assumes that the advent of 3D printing is a foregone conclusion:
3D printers are going to be cheap. Really cheap. Cheap enough that everyone who wants one is going to have one. There'll be no need for libraries to provide them for the poor because everyone will own them, like the ubiquitous smartphone... Perhaps there was a time when it would have made sense for libraries, therefore, to provide 3D printers to the populace but that time has already effectively gone even before most of us were really aware of the possibility. 1
Hyperbole aside, we're right back where we started: that there may or may not be some deep connection between publishing in two dimensions and producing in three.2 Amazon may only be a superficial signifier for books, but the notion of 'rebuilding and retooling' public libraries points to a more fundamental question of the cultural value of information versus empirical objects, and how these things are created and consumed in kind. (NB: In the interest of time, I've refrained from perusing the 245 comments on Torrone's post, but I'm sure this issue crops up there.)
A more accurate analogy, perhaps, is that of an industrial revolution: although I'm ambivalent about the grand scope of this characterization, it's rather more true to the spirit of the paradigm shift.3 In a felicitous 'meta' twist, we recently wrote about Josh Harker's Anatomica di Revolutis, commemorating this very movement, and the three videos in the appendix of his project page are pitch-perfect vignettes about the so-called Third Industrial Revolution. (The unembeddable Economist clip covers a lot of the same ground as the Shapeways one, embedded below; check out Chris Yonge's 20+ minute TEDx Talk if you're curious to hear more.)
So when will 3D printing really catch on?4 Your humble editor invites you to sound off in the comments.
1. The article takes an unexpectedly dark turn for its second half; once Anstice has determined that 'No, 3D printing won't save the public library system,' he proceeds (through a bit of convoluted logic) to explore the inverse topic: whether public libraries can save us from 3D printing—specifically, 3D printed guns. This is another discussion—regarding gun control, privatization of means of production, etc.—entirely... but it's worth noting that the premise of this argument concerns the production of real things. [Back]
2. In some ways, the most telling indication that the analogy is false might be to consider the relationship between the third and fourth dimensions. I'm not going to pretend I understand, say, Minkowski spacetime, but that's sort of the point: laymen can accept that objects extend in time as they do in space, but I'll be the first to admit that the actual physics of how temporality might be construed in relation to spatiality is far beyond the grasp my feeble mind.
Part of the misunderstanding, then, might be attributable to the fact that three-dimensional objects can be represented in two-dimensional space—a corollary to human physiology (i.e. binocular vision), which presents a verifiable illusion that space has three dimensions. Insofar as our experience of the world is limited to the perceptible dimensions, I can see why people get so excited about a technology that makes real things... as opposed to mere images of them.
As a thought experiment, what would a one-dimensional printer be? The closest thing I can think of is a telegraph, or any medium that is limited to Morse code... [Back]
3. Yes, I'm aware that maker extraordinaire Chris Anderson recently wrote a whole book about it; I'm currently about halfway through, and from what I can tell, the book expands on a thesis that Anderson first proposed in a January 2010 (!) article in Wired. And for what it's worth, I'm also aware that "Paradigm shift" is a much-maligned buzzword. [Back]
4. Meanwhile, the list of niche applications of additive manufacturing grows parallel to the buzz around 3D printing for a mainstream audience. From nanoscale 3D printing to the recently-seen 1/3-scale Aston Martin prop for Skyfall, from prosthetics to interactive objects—to say nothing of biological ones—I've been far more impressed with the applications of cutting-edge digital fabrication as opposed to consumer-facing propositions. [Back]