MULTIPLE TIMES throughout history a new technology has emerged that radically altered the dominant manufacturing paradigm. The hyper-globalized model of today is in fact a very recent development, one governed by logistic variables like supply chains, shipping costs, labor conditions, and regional regulations. Some believe one emerging technology could disrupt globalized manufacturing in a historic way.
“3-D printers” use a process called additive layering to stack thin layers of heated base material on top of one another until they make a finished product (watch this video to see it happen). It builds the object based on a digital design that is developed on a computer program, then sent to the 3-D printer. This means a single, unique object can be completed with virtually no wasted materials.
The importance of this technology may not be immediately apparent, but it could be the most profound innovation since the internet. Decentralized manufacturing would shatter the framework of globalization that exists to accomodate the efficient physical movement of goods through their various production steps; the ability to make one-of-a-kind designs would eliminate the economic value of mass production, enabling mass customization; and new research is showing that 3-D printing can open up entirely new design possibilities, enabling revolutionary breakthroughs and (in some cases) entirely new services.
The scale of the changes described above will hinge on several factors: the cost of fabricators and raw materials, the range of materials available for use, the time of fabrication, and the ability to integrate multiple materials into a single design. Right now, the unfortunate reality is that the cost of 3-D printers is too high and the demand for the few products it can fabricate too low for consumers to buy into it on a large scale, but this is quickly changing. Some commentators say the technology is approximately at the stage of computers in the 1970s. We may still be 20-30 years away from something user-friendly enough and useful enough to saturate markets the way computers have, but there is a critical intermediary that should not be overlooked. Businesses have a higher tolerance for expensive machines that have narrow application, as long as using them reduces costs. Innovating in ways that are useful to certain businesses could build the critical mass necessary to thrust this platform into the mainstream.
Direct digital manufacturing poses a series of questions to the public. Should design principles be taught in public schools the way basic computer literacy is now taught? What framework should be in place to protect intellectual rights of digital designs? Are there security risks that accompany decentralized manufacturing? As the technology evolves, these questions will only become more relevant. Maximizing the value of direct digital manufacturing will require an open dialogue from a range of experts. With the prospect of building a 21st century manufacturing base that enables the freest flow of goods in human history, no stone should be left unturned.