How to Use 3D Printing to Displace the Production Line

By Kalani Kirk Hausman, Richard Horne

The potential presented in additive manufacturing as it matures suggests a fundamental transformation in the production of material goods. Supporters like to discuss the possibilities inherent in ad-hoc personalized manufacturing at the consumer level, whereas critics argue about the damage any transition away from traditional mass-manufacturing, storage, and distribution would make to existing economies. Who is right?

These concerns follow the same fears that buggy-whip makers and farriers faced when mechanization replaced the need for horse-drawn carts, when hand-spinners were replaced by automated thread makers, when coopers faced the rapid production capacity of injection-molded barrels, or when automated looms transformed textile production capabilities — all examples of this same shift during earlier transformational stages in the first and second Industrial Revolutions.

The mobility of manufacturing to place production in close proximity to consumers offers a mechanism to eliminate the need for mass production of bulk goods that would then have to be shipped and stored in a fuel-hungry post-Peak Oil economy a decade from now.

With the potential already developing to print everything from engine parts to whole houses by moving production directly to the consumers’ sites, many cargo container ships will be put out of business if the “3D Industrial Revolution” takes off and reaches a fraction of the promise in its potential.

3D printing, crowdfunding, robotics, ad-hoc media content, and a host of other technologies — taken together — will not only alter the course of production but fundamentally shatter traditional manufacturing practices and related industries such as advertising and marketing.

When you consider the capability to print entire houses as well as the materials therein, you can see how this transformation could affect even something as prosaic as industries that currently move and store household goods, at the most extreme end simply re-creating everything at the new location. The same company could reclaim materials used in the previous building and furnishings.

Similarly, this would impact those trades that would traditionally build the destination building and store the furniture before selling new models to consumers, along with companies that would manage the property during its transition to new ownership, all the way down to the lawn service that would provide care during the lack of tenancy.

The new way of doing business will be very disruptive to traditional practices across all levels of industry, but it will also open up wholly new opportunities for consumers and producers in the new industrial age.

Many of the world’s largest economic powers stand to be displaced in the face of this latest Third Industrial Revolution and will certainly move to prevent its transformation as long as possible. This opposition can be seen in early arguments suggesting that all 3D printers should be registered with the government on the grounds of the danger they present to the public in terms of 3D-printed firearms or mis-manufactured components.

However, controlling this technology won’t be so easy. The RepRap platform, for example, can fabricate using many different sources of materials. Kirk’s students have been able to build functional 3D printers using scrap parts from old discarded electronic garbage (stepper motors, switches and rails from old ink-jet printers, electronics built from chip-level Arduino boards and motor driver RAMPS open source designs). And PLA filament has been successfully formed from tapioca.

When garbage + natural plant materials = 3D printers, the concept of forced registration and control of this remarkable technology proves to be difficult or even impossible.

In medical and engineering settings, the success of additive manufacturing has been thoroughly proven. Consider the magnificent reconstruction of the Saturn V’s colossal rocket motors by NASA scientists. This technology was designed to provide heavy-lift capability for the Orion’s space launch system that will replace the retired space shuttle for manned exploration of the Moon and Mars.

3D printing is preparing the vehicles that will carry our future astronauts, and 3D printing will provide them with the tools and possibly even the food they will need during their journeys. In medicine, 3D printing may soon provide replacement parts for our bodies. And the military is finding many uses for 3D-printed, in-the-field rapid prototypes.

Trying to stuff this genie back into its bottle should be very nearly impossible, with such a tremendous global force of inventors finding ever-more-capable solutions to expand the capacity that additive manufacturing offers.

The path from here, however, will not be without its impediments. Many in the world depend on things remaining the way they have always been. But as the past Industrial Revolutions have shown, the easier, less costly and more efficient solutions will win. Perhaps future generations will study about the time before replacement organs were built in school biology class and wonder how people ever managed to live without them.