Rightly so, a lot of people are getting in a lather about the possibilities of 3D printing and the chance to make a nylon thingumajig for their broken washing machine (or a gun).
But, the true future of 3D printing poked its head above the horizon this week, when bonkers supercar manufacturer, Koenigsegg, announced their latest invention, the Agera ONE:1 (so called because it has a one-to-one horsepower-to-kg ration with 1000 bhp and 1000 kg kerb weight). In amongst the mouthwatering (if you're into that sort of thing) specifications is a 3D printed titanium exhaust tip.
Up until now, 3D printing had always only used plastic — usually SLS nylon — to make accurate and enchanting three dimensional objects. When I produced the GPS for James Bridle for CONTAINER #1:Hot&Cold, I worked with Nick Allen of 3D print UK and asked him about other, more durable, materials and he was dismissive, saying he didn't think metals would be available for the foreseeable future. But, here on a product you can buy now (if you've got a spare £880,000), is a part printed in a very durable metal.
So, what's the significance of this, other than for super-rich petrolheads?
Prior to Gutenberg, a book was a very precious thing, costing the equivalent to a small farm in the early fifteenth century. But it was the improvement in accuracy — drunken scribes impacted mistakes in a literary version of Chinese whispers — as well as the reduction in cost that had the transformative effect on mankind, society and culture. Prior to printing, books were elitist, mystical and unreliable. The invention of printing — to name but a few of its legacies — created: scholarship and learning, advancements in science, the reformation, democratisation and restructuring of self-governing nation states, advertising and media, childhood, mass-literacy, intellectual property and mass-manufacturing.
Within a generation of Gutenberg, there was a local print shop, usually family run with a master printer and a few apprentices, in every small town in western Europe. So perfect was this set-up that printing was entirely untouched by the industrial revolution; indeed Gutenberg had already created mass-manufacturing two hundreds before Arkwright and four hundred years before Henry Ford. This was local manufacturing, meeting the communication needs of any local town — posters, leaflets, booklets etc. Indeed, this model still survives and thrives today — I produce John Willshire's Artefact cards at Axminster Printing, a family-run local printer for a small market town.
Mass manufacturing is based on a simple rule: Make The Same Thing Time And Time Again (MTSTTATA) — tool up and create economies of scale to make specific goods from one or a few locations and then ship them to markets around the world, any time disadvantage of shipping is irrelevant as the goods are the same, so can be held in warehouses and shops as inventory for instant access . This is world we know.
Local manufacturing is very different: it has to meet the disparate needs of all of its customers and has to be able to offer the goods at least as cheap as the mass-produced alternative. Since it can't predict exactly what they'll want and can't keep stock of endless possibilities, it needs to manufacture on-demand and with service levels that come close to picking things off the shelf (this is the biggest challenge). Your local print shop, like Axminster Printing is already doing it — they'll produce a bespoke poster for your garden fete (not anybody else's) on-demand from a series of basic materials (e.g. gloss coated paper).
The 3D printing version of this would be no different: a series of basic materials (plastic, metal etc) would be used to create an endless range of three-dimensional goods for all sorts of different utilities.
But, once established, a network of local 3D print shops could have a revolutionary effect — every bit as far-reaching as Gutenberg's invention — since it will render the mass-production obsolete. It could:
1. Reverse the industrial revolution and eliminate the need for large, location-specific factories
2. Dramatically reduce the environmental impact of goods shipped across oceans
3. Foster mass-creativity (just as printing fostered mass-literacy) and the possibility of an explosion of grass-roots human invention.
4. Create goods and products for genuinely individual needs and foster a new highly individualistic culture
5. Negate the advantage of big corporations vs small — every local 3D print shop's market would be constrained by the convenience of driving to the next one.
6. Negate the advantage of deployment of capital, creating a radical democratisation of finances and a new post-capitalist economy
7. Erode the political and economic differences and advantages of developed vs undeveloped nations
Plus, no doubt many more...
Ironically, many of these ideas have been hinted at as consequences of the internet — e.g. social media and The Arab Spring etc — but the internet is ultimately only an information distribution medium and its transformative powers will be dwarfed by a transformation of the production of physical objects. Because the ultimate value of information is nothing (Information Wants To Be Free), its power lies in what it allows us to do physically. We are, after all, physical animals living in a physical world.
Gutenberg's legacy was immense and it will directly inform an equally bigger transformation of mankind's existence — and the future can be seen in the exhaust pipe of an outrageous Swedish sportscar.