Dr. Geek: 3D Printers, Replicators, and the End of Consumerism

‘Tis the holidays.  Thanksgiving has just past.  Christmas is down the line.  Black Friday and CyberMonday are testaments to our drive towards consumerism.  But what if in 10, 20 years, you no longer had to shop for things?  What if all those presents people fight for in the wee hours after Thanksgiving, those must-have toys made in China, would be replaced by creatively designed, thoughtful toys made at home?  What if further down the field, 50, 60 years, those mad dashes to the grocery store to pick up something for a holiday feast could be replaced by turning on a device at home and rezzing cranberries or celery or even a whole turkey?

Stuff of science fiction, perhaps, but today’s science fact is providing us with a potential route to the future: the emergence of 3D printing, also known as desktop manufacturing, is a domestic commodity that could change our relationship to the consumption of material goods in the same way desktop publishing changed our relationship to the consumption of media products.

3D printing utilizes an automated system of extruding a building material controlled by computer programming to produce a three-dimensional object.  Desktop manufacturing has been around in large scale industrial manufacturing businesses since the concept’s invention in 1984.  Since the emergence of the RepRap printer in 2007 with the rise of the DIY community, various companies have developed kits for do-it-yourself enthusiasts and hobbyists.  Such kits perform a step similar to the step in personal computer history that brought the computer from businesses into households; Apple got its start by offering personal computer kits to computer enthusiasts.  3D printing is now taking a similar step as small companies create pre-assembled devices for people to purchase and prices become increasingly affordable.  Such as MakerBot’s Replicator2, Cubify’s Cube, and Solidoodle’s offering, which is the cheapest of the three starting at $499.  We are even starting to see the idea of 3D printing emerging as an art form and gimmick, as the 3d photobooth in Japan demonstrates a growing acceptance through pop culture and fads.

These pre-assembled devices work to produce three-dimensional objects via a process called additive manufacturing.  Each device has a print head, similar to your desktop printer, except that instead of extruding toner or ink, in these devices what is used for printing is some form of plastic.  If you have ever used a hot glue gun in a crafting project, then you will understand how this print head works: the print head uses force and heat to soften the plastic thread into a malleable and printable medium.  Controlled by a computer program, the print head moves along the X and Y axes to lay out the plastic in the desired shape while the print base moves in the Z axis.  As the print base moves down, the print head continues to extrude plastic according to the design, meaning that the plastic thread is being layered on top of each other — how narrow the layers are depends on the resolution the device can print.  Overall, it sort of looks like how they recreated Leeloo in The Fifth Element — only with plastic.

3D printers cold be useful in schools and homes.  Imagine explaining chemical compounds by printing them for students to physically touch?  Or have future engineers design complex devices, and then print the prototypes?  Imagine future artists working with future business leaders to develop and print what could become the basis  for a future entrepreneurial venture.   The same is true for uses at home, as homemade artistic ventures and creative engineering designs could provide people with supplemental or primary income.  But it could be much more than that.

Imagine having Suzy or Johnny design his toys rather than just buy them at Toys ‘R Us.  The fun of creative expression helped drive desktop publishing as a challenge to traditional system of publishing and production industries.  The same could occur with desktop manufacturing, as people experience the fun of being able to see their design realized in 3D within minutes.  Imagine the boon to Etsy, or its new rival, Sculpteo.  The rise of desktop manufacturing could mean the eventual end of mass manufactured goods — at least for more simplistic goods that do not require computer circuitry, which increasing more and more of our manufactured goods do because we require some level of AI and computer interaction with everything we buy.  But basic toys, pieces of equipment, household tools and furnishings — many things you see around you could potentially be printed at home rather than bought at a store.

Should this new produce-to-consume model take hold, it could mean that stores might have to start selling designs more than actual goods.  Creative consultants would be in high demand as people make sense of how to conceptualize and realize their designs.  Retail clerks could give way to design engineers, ready to help you through a design question.  And for the more advanced designs, special manufacturing stores could be developed to work on individuals’ projects.

But if I am taking this model as far as possible, then there is another trajectory to consider: Star Trek’s replicators.  If you are not familiar with the Star Trek universe, replicators were introduced in The Next Generation series.  Replicators are devices that utilize technology behind transporters to materialize food and drink — any food and drink that you request in the manner that you request it.

Now it is not just food, but just about any material needed can be created with the replicator.  And as others have pointed out, it may be that the first step towards replicators is 3D printing — albeit with a completely different type of printing.  The replicator utilizes transporter technology, which assembles the molecules needed to form the required object, whether animate or inanimate.  However, if we had the wherewithal to manipulate matter on a subatomic level, then we would be working on the transporter first, and not the replicator.  Right now, our printing technology requires additive layering.  But that doesn’t mean only plastic or metal or ceramic can be laid down like that.  There are 3D printers for creating food items.  The printer head can be adapted to create additive layers of organic materials, such as chocolate, cream, or whatever it was that made the Twinkie sponge cake.

Let’s take this one step further.  There are people working on laboratory grown protein, also known as in vitro meat or synthetic meat.  It could be possible to develop basic protein that could be flavored and extruded through a 3D print head, creating layer by layer a filet mignon or turkey breast.  Such a device could mean the end to cruel factory farming practices that abuse animals and pollute our world.  Want beef?  Just pick out the beef-flavored protein tubes from the fridge and hook them up to the device — design your steak, and away you go!

I don’t think a food 3D printing device would ever completely supplant real food: chiefly because it would be hard to replicate the taste of real sun-drenched, lovingly farmed food, whether animal, vegetable or fruit.  Even in Star Trek everyone is glad to have access to real grown food.  But a 3D printing food replicator could be used to offset some practices that are harming our planet, and could also potentially reduce starvation rates around the world, as long as we are proactive enough to not restrict the technology to only the affluent among us.

3D printing technology has massive potential, as long as we realize it and embrace it as a device for user-generation and prevent the corporations, who have an investment in the current system of consumerism, from controlling desktop manufacturing.  If we can continue the spirit that has revolutionized the publishing world and is starting to severely disrupt the media industries, then we could see a rise in user-driven innovation that further reduces our drive to consume and heightens our desire to produce.

UPDATE: It may be that the technology responsible for the recreation of Leeloo is also in our future, as scientists work with the 3D printing principle to print human cartilage.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.