It’s hard to believe you can manufacture your own toys and tchotchkes—not in a factory, but in your home. But companies including MakerBot and Solidoodle are already making it possible, selling low-end 3D printers to consumers for as little as $499. The printers spray liquified powders in thousands of layers to form almost any imaginable shape. And industrial models can even “print” objects made out of Titanium, glass, and many other materials. With 3D printing’s ever-expanding capabilities and growing popularity, it may not be long before the average household can print anything from Sunday suppers (shades of “The Jetsons”!) to lethal weapons.
The Council on Foreign Relations gathered pundits on this advanced manufacturing technology in late October for a session called “3D Printing: Challenges and Opportunities for International Relations.” Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick moderated a panel including Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Thomas Campbell, Solidoodle CEO Sam Cervantes, and tech entrepreneur Robert Reid. Panelists said that today we can already 3D print items composed of plastic, metal, ceramics, and glass; and researchers are working on printers for foodstuffs and even human organs.
Countries around the world are already spending heavily on research and development. According to Virginia Tech’s Campbell, China committed to invest $242 million in 10 national 3D-printing institutes after hearing President Obama extol the technology in his 2012 State of the Union Address. The U.S. is also investing, though not to nearly the same degree. Germany and Singapore are other big players in the field, he added.
In the future the crew of Navy submarines and astronauts on the International Space Station will probably print spare parts on demand, said Campbell, eliminating today’s need to devote substantial precious space to parts. Aging people with deteriorating organs may have new ones printed for them. “This is an overwhelmingly positive force in society,” Cervantes said. “3D printing is going to allow us to live smarter, happier, more sustainable, and more productive lives.”
This betterment of people’s lives comes from not only the 3D printing itself, but also who’s doing the 3D printing. Just as PCs democratized information access, 3D printing may democratize manufacturing by enabling everyone to be her own manufacturer, giving the consumer-turned-producer more creative agency, innovative power, and personal freedom.
“I’m really intrigued by the potential 3D printing has for subversion, in any society but particularly in less free societies,” Reid said. “Much as YouTube lets people see things that their governments don’t want them to see, and much as Facebook and Twitter and blogging platforms let people say things their governments don’t want them to say, 3D printing will allow people to make things their governments don’t want them to have.”
Do we really want people to be able to go to their basement and print whatever they want, including government-banned items? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.