Roff Smith writes in the current issue of National Geographic about 3D printing in an article called Just Press Print. The article is worth reading and discussing because it does an excellent job representing the popular excitement around 3D printing, warts and all. Many write about how 3D printing will be a game changer, what with us all printing what we need at home, thanks to a desktop unit in every basement, or even in every kitchen to print us out that latest faddish pizza. I have written before about authors who claim that, in a decade, our clothes will be 3D-printed daily, hewing to the latest styles and fashions even before we are personally aware of the newest trends. Roff writes, though, not just about the desktop printing phenomenon but also about industry- about both the manufacturing corner– how major companies like Boeing use freeform additive manufacturing to make parts that are otherwise hard to make in molds; and then about new companies who intend to use giant 3D printers to print your house on-site, to spec. I’m sure that giant 3D printer is too big to transport easily- maybe we can print it too?
The truth of 3D printing that this article captures well is that it has slaved together two utterly different processes: one is that of additive manufacturing in industry, with million-dollar machines that are clear advancements on other manufacturing processes and may even have a ilne toward reasonable cost points in terms of production; then there are the desktop home machines, which will continue to empower us, but provide us with parts at rates and costs that cannot possibly match that of high-volume manufacturing.
3D printing will not upend conventional manufacturing- far from it. It just might increase our level of consumption- we may use ever more plastic per capita, and that aspect can have some unfortunate secondary effects; but manufacturing writ large will continue to charge the way, heralding a future with few people, more robots, and greater quantities of product and margin. Manufacturing has always used additive, subtractive and deformational processes exactly as needed to make the things they convince us to buy. 3D printing changes none of that calculus at the industrial level.