More Than 3Dimensions

WrenchOwnership is the subject of “On the Media’s” recent broadcast from WNYC, and the show’s producers talked to a variety of voices about the ever-shifting tensions between intellectual property rights and disruptive technologies.  One segment featured a conversation with Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, and the theme was a familiar one — the inevitable disruption of manufacturing by 3D printing technology coupled with a preemptive criticism of federal regulation that would seek to mitigate said disruption as a protectionist move among traditional manufacturers.  Before this technology is anywhere near wide distribution, its proponents are already anticipating the kind of legal constraints that might naturally ensue, and they’re getting their message out early — namely that 3D printing is the next revolution in a DIY, permission-free lifestyle, and it will be great for all of us if lawmakers don’t mess it up.  But to what extent is this conversation purely academic?  In fact, host Bob Garfield’s example of printing a wrench is itself and indication as to why 3D printing may not be quite so universally disruptive, or at least not in the way many proponents assume.

Start with the premise that I bet I’m not the only one who has gone through at least a dozen or so ink jet printers in my life so far, and we all know why.  Because the printers are made to retail pretty cheaply in order to lock us into buying toner cartridges that are still quite expensive.  Over twenty years of desktop printing, and the price of a black toner cartridge is still $30 to $40 at Staples.

So now, it’s the future, and I have my 3D printer, which had to retail for maybe $500 or less in order to achieve market penetration; and I’m ready to print myself a new crescent wrench, something that has already been done by various printer advocates and entrepreneurs.  If black toner is $30, how much will it cost for, I don’t know, 30oz of whatever MagicGoo has been invented to enable printing a wrench that has enough structural integrity to truly fulfill its purpose (i.e. not break)? It’s going to have to be really cheap and really good (two things that often don’t coincide) in order to compete with the steel-alloy, nickel-plated Craftsman I can buy for about $30 and comes with a lifetime guarantee.  And of course my 3D printer better be a lot more reliable than my 2D printers have been because I’m sure many of us have lost whole days fighting with these delicate, cantankerous beasts, which is right around the time we give up and buy a new one.  Meanwhile, I’ve got bolts on the kids’ swing set that remain unbolted because my printer jammed half-way through making my stupid wrench, and my wife is telling me I’m an idiot for not going to the hardware store two hours ago. So, a lot more than downloading software and owning a printer has to align for this entire prospect to be superior to the current wrench acquisition paradigm that is neither cumbersome nor cost-prohibitive.  And that’s just a wrench.

Take something a little more complicated but still low-tech like a brake caliper, which has several components and retails for my car for about $60. In its present form, the caliper (like so many products) represents mining, petroleum production, rubber harvesting, commodities markets, international trade, shipping (which is protected by the US Navy), machining, assembly,  testing, and regulatory safety standards. And still, the part is only twenty dollars more than a black toner cartridge. But as this is a moving part complete with spring, I can’t just build it as one piece out of nothing but MagicGoo. Hence, are we envisioning a future in which individual consumers have affordable access to raw materials like copper, metal alloys, rubber, etc. all in some form that can be extruded through the 3D printer?  If so, that’s a pretty massive shift in the global supply chain; but even if the day comes when I can precision-print each component, I still have to assemble the caliper by hand (presumably with tools I’ve also printed), which brings us to another matter. . . . Guess what none of us has anymore — auto insurance.  Car parts are just one example of products that come with a liability chain, and I’m betting there isn’t going to be an underwriter willing to insure drivers who make and assemble their own parts.  By contrast the calipers on all our cars have a supply chain that can be traced, which provides a) relative assurance in reliability; b) absolves us consumers of personal liability; and c) provides insight into systemic problems when something does fail.

Just glancing across my rather cluttered desk at the moment, I recognize products that contain gold, silver, copper, silicone, steel, aluminum, rubber, and cotton, all assembled in very specific combinations either by hand or by robot.  In fact, the complexity of systems that put these things at my fingertips belies their affordability. Hence, my immediate instinct is that many of these preemptive policy statements by 3D printing champions make for very interesting conversation and TED Talks, but still belong in the realm of the academic.  A holistic contemplation of 3D printer disruption, taking into account what a pain in the ass common ink printers have been so far, shows it will take a lot more than building an object that looks like a product for the thing to actually be that product.

Technologists and inventors are supposed to dream big; it’s part of their job description. And the prospect of 3D printing to produce new products or new methods of certain types of production in the arts, in food, even potentially in housing, are very intriguing, but to proclaim imminent disruption across the entire manufacturing sector seems a tad premature. And the policy messages start to sound a little like people arguing for revised traffic laws in anticipation of that day we all have jet packs. All that said, I’d be very eager to use a 3D printer to print out new 2D printers and especially those damnable toner cartridges.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)