This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Feb. 29, Future Tense will host an event on the Make movement and do-it-yourself innovation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.
Anyone who’s run across one of the many recent news articles extolling the wonders of 3-D printing could be forgiven for thinking that mankind’s golden future is finally at hand. This marvelous technology will, if you believe the headlines, transform education, end child labor, and spur a manufacturing revolution. “A second industrial revolution is under way,” the New Scientist proclaimed in a special report on 3-D printing. The usually restrained Economist agreed, declaring, “It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”
Given that the first Industrial Revolution helped increase the world’s population six-fold and more than double the average life expectancy, that’s a pretty bold claim. Meanwhile, some curmudgeons have stepped out from the (traditionally crafted) woodwork to explain “why 3-D printing will go the way of virtual reality.” Betting that a newfangled technology will never catch on is, of course, a recipe for embarrassment. In fact, 3-D printers are already changing the world—just not the kind of 3-D printers that sit in your living room.
Part of the confusion over 3-D printing’s real potential might arise from the widespread misuse of that ambiguous phrase, “everything from X to Y.” In a typical example, London’s Evening Standard reports that home 3-D printers can churn out “everything from a new necklace to a replacement car part.” Here on Slate, Abundance authors Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler tell us industrial designers can use them to produce “everything from lampshades and eyeglasses to custom-fitted prosthetic limbs.” Necklaces, car parts, lampshades, and prosthetic limbs are all things that 3-D printers can make. But that’s hardly “everything.” Such expansive claims tend to obscure the important distinction between 3-D printers intended for home use and those geared toward specific, high-end industrial applications. And they give rise to questions like this one from a puzzled colleague who heard I was working on a piece about 3-D printing: “So is it true that you, like, touch a button and a bike pops out?”
Sure—so long as you don’t mind your bikes made entirely of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. That’s the only substance you can use in the leading desktop 3-D printer, the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. Others intended for home use rely on similar types of plastics. (Industrial 3-D printers, in contrast, can handle a wider array of materials—more on those below.) These substances share a number of virtues, including being relatively cheap, widely available, flexible, and durable. They’re great for making custom mobile-phone holders and sad Keanu Reeves dolls. But most useful items require more than one material. Even a rudimentary bike needs rubber for the tires, foam and vinyl for the seat, a lightweight metal for the frame. Home 3-D printers can’t do that today. Nor can they do anything with organic-based substances like cotton, wood, or food. Someday they might, but even then it’s not clear whether they’d be able to approach the quality and cost-efficiency of mass-producing bikes or T-shirts. Wide-eyed futurists foresee product shipping—nay, consumerism—rendered obsolete, because you’ll be able to make anything in your living room. All you need is a 3-D printer! Well, that and all the raw materials in the world, from silk for scarves to rare-earth metals for electronic gadgets. And you thought keeping your 2-D Deskjet stocked with ink cartridges was a pain.