3D Printers Are A Game-Changer, But Not For the Reasons You Think….

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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34 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Qu’vatlh ghuy’cha’ baQa’! Starfleet only allows replication of white zin!Report

  2. Lyle says:

    I agree the use of lathes and milling machines is not exactly a state secret. Recall that you can build good pistols with 1850-1860s technology. Yes it may take some skill with the machines. Less if you got CNC controlled machines, and good templates. (The lathe bores the barrel, the milling machines make the non round parts.) The more interesting tech question is rather what can be built with additive technology that could not be built with subtractive technology (the old way you take a blank or a piece of stock and make it into a part).Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Lyle says:

      The important consideration so far — and at least for plastic printed guns, likely to remain true indefinitely — is that they’re producing zip guns. Single shot, difficult to reload, and especially if a higher-powered round sneaks in, likely to blow up in the user’s hand. They’re bulky to the point of being difficult to hide to make up for the weakness of the material, and they’re inaccurate at ranges beyond a few yards.

      Spot on about the lathe and a milling attachment and building real guns. The Sten fully-automatic submachine gun comes immediately to mind. Designed in WWII to be buildable in a modest workshop — one Danish resistance group manufactured them in a bicycle repair shop. Detailed drawings available on the Internet or through your friendly neighborhood public library, if you know which books to borrow. Other than some welding, all the parts produced by subtractive methods (or stamping, and anything you can stamp can be cut on a mill, even if it’s time consuming).

      The only scenario that I worry about with printed plastic guns is the bright, but lacking in common sense, ten-year-old who downloads the files, prints the gun on their parents’ printer, loads it with one of the high-powered rounds same parents neglected to lock up, and then has the weapon blow up in their hand. Possibly losing the hand, possibly blinded by flying fragments, possibly but less likely dying. I’m willing to entertain small bets that this happens well before someone uses a printed gun for criminal or terrorist activities.Report

  3. Rogue Economist says:

    One of my friends has been 3d-printing the GlaDOS lamp recently. Total printing time in excess of 70 hours, several bad batches, one batch of the base material thrown out due to humidity contamination from improper storage, and another 25+ hours of sanding, filling, and re-sanding each component before he was even able to start painting it for assembly.

    While I will agree that eventually this technology may produce interesting economic effects, for the moment the greatest risk we face is to the plastic coat-hanger industry and they’re producing coat hangers for pennies apiece. Meanwhile his estimated cost to produce 10,000 coat hangers would be around $1 per hanger even before we calculate his lost time, effort, and electric bill.Report

    • Murali in reply to Rogue Economist says:

      But if I can print a hanger whenever I need one, then I don’t need ot go to the store just for one. Even if it is far cheaper in a store.Report

      • Shazbot4 in reply to Murali says:

        You could order a pack of hangers in the mail from Target or Walmart’s website, too. You don’t actually have to leave the house.

        I suppose that if you need a hanger immediately (I won’t judge you for whatever reasons you need the hanger, Murali) and you can’t wait for it to come in three days, and it is an inconvenience to get one on the way home from work where you buy food, then yes a 3D printer might be good for you.

        But it is already so, so convenient to buy most consumer goods that a home 3D printer will have to offer fairly high quality goods to be a serious form of competition with factory-produced-retail consumer goods.

        I certainly can see hangers that are comparable in quality to retail ones, but not much else.Report

    • As noted in the OP, my point is more of a long-term consequences, including and anticipating continual improvements to the hardware.

      Also, why would he have to make 10,000 coat hangers when he only needs a couple?

      This is even more so when we’re talking about being able to casually create items in small batches without the hassle of using energy (whether simple expenditure of physical energy or of something more material like gasoline), transportation time and the time lag usually associated with doing without something for a short time while you find a reason to go the store may in absolute utility terms outweigh the immediate cost of producing the item yourself.Report

      • Shazbot4 in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        Yeah, but most of the time we’re already expending time and energy (gas for the car) in going to the store for food (or work, or goods that are too difficult to print well). If the hardware store is next door, you can pick up hangers when you buy bread, just as easily and efficiently as getting a pattern and printing them at home.Report

      • Rogue Economist in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        You’re discounting a few things.
        Electric bill.
        Printing time.

        He spent an enormous amount of money on his 3D printer, plus base material, plus the wiring and component cost for LEDs and driver, plus personal construction time spent sanding, filling, and evening out the printing inconsistencies to make this. If I found someone selling a plastic model kit for it I’d just buy the thing and it’d be cheaper for me to do so.Report

    • Shazbot4 in reply to Rogue Economist says:

      Yeah, I think 3D printers are more likely to get us making and using new things (new kids toys, say, or who knows what) than replacing things we already buy at retail outlets.Report

    • While I will agree that eventually this technology may produce interesting economic effects, for the moment the greatest risk we face is to the plastic coat-hanger industry and they’re producing coat hangers for pennies apiece.

      My son works for a high-end model train company (if you need a model of a 1953 — as distinct from a 1954 — GE diesel/electric locomotive painted in that year’s UP colors for your setup, call them). Most of the molding is done in China. According to him, no one manufactures plastic hangers per se. Each mold for plastic parts makes many parts; the parts are connected by a “tree” formed by the channels through which the liquid plastic flows. At some firms, the tree is intentionally shaped so that after the target parts are trimmed off, the tree is… a hanger. If there are orders for hangers, they get bundled up and shipped. If there are no orders, they got tossed back in the vat to be remelted. “Pennies” is probably an overestimate of the cost to manufacture a hanger.Report

  4. North says:

    There’s certainly enormously exciting potential with 3d printing though as some of the commentors note it’s well out in the future right now.

    To your point about a potential need for less low cost labor I’d say all the more reason to encourage development using low cost labor as long as it’s feasible (and of course to support efforts to accelerate the progression of low cost labor economies into better ones by encouraging their governments to evolve into more responsive responsible ones and supporting labor in general). The more countries that’re in or near the first world when/if 3d printing becomes ubiquitous the better (it’d mean more first world educated brains available to contribute to the design pool and of course less human suffering).Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    You’re surely right that at the moment, 3D printing produces only plastic goods, but we already have computer-controlled machine shops and woodworking facilities. I can foresee community “print shops” akin to Kinko’s. Not everyone wants to invest in a computer-controlled plastic extrusion molder, metal lathe, wood kit, and the other sorts of hardware needed to come up with the parts for furniture, kitchen gadgets, and the like.

    The result will be that for a few bucks, or for free, you’ll be able to get plans to take down on your thumb drive to the local machining shop. Or maybe there will be one next to the Home Depot, which will also sell you the raw materials. You’ll rent the machining facility for twenty dollars or so, and pop in a foot of steel and a dozen or so 2x4s, and boom, you’ve got yourself the parts for a bedframe that assembles with about the same ease as an IKEA bookshelf kit you order online today. Saves you hundreds of dollars. Furniture stores (and, for that matter, IKEA) are out of business because they’re superfluous.

    It’ll be like what happened with Amazon. What happens to the middlemen? They’ll have to figure out something new to do — they’ll become materials suppliers, finishing shop proprietors, or designers of the new templates for the products they used to retail. It’ll be rough and the transition period is going to suck, especially for them. But in the long run, it’ll work out.

    What happens to developing countries? Some of them make it, and skip directly to something approximating first-world prosperity if they can get enough electricity and enough capital invested to build their own finishing shops. Others don’t, and become raw material suppliers.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Burt Likko says:

      AS to the machine shops they do exist at least in some smaller towns, and in universities. You can take a design and if feasable they can quote a price. (I did a search on custom machine shops texas and got a number of hits) So that part is there today, in terms of subtractive manufacturing.Report

    • Kimsie in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Ikea won’t go out of business that easily.
      Logistics, dear — and economies of scale.Report

    • Shazbot4 in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I agree with Kimsie.

      Isn’t a “print shop” for cruddy consumer goods what Ikea is already?

      The 3D print shop will need machines, staff, technicians to fix machines, loading and unloading staff to take in sheets of steel and lumber and to recycle scraps. That will cost you money when you go to rent a machine at the print shop, just like getting things from Ikea’s factories costs money. And the print shop will need to profit, just like Ikea does. If people themselves are using the machines, their will need to be staff to supervise, which may cost more than having workers actually operate the machines.

      There would be some savings in that a print shop wouldn’t need retail space. But then again, Ikea could compete by killing their retail stores and having people do all their shopping and ordering online, thus lowering costs. Or just having small Ikea retail stores that display a limited number of goods.

      But Ikea saves money by producing a lot of these items en mass in a factory line and then selling them. If the print shop is selling custom items from different patterns, cut and formed one at a time, that is slower and (I suspect) more costly in terms of energy and labor.

      Maybe you’re right, but I’m suspicious.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Shazbot4 says:

        I think the point here is actually more that at some point, small scale automated production will become so ubiquitous and cheap (as in comparable in terms of price points with getting people in Bangladesh to make something similar in batches of 1000000) that it will cut out the retail middle man and simply make designers compete on the quality of design rather than on things like total price including factors like labor, ingredients (to a point).Report

        • Shazbot4 in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          But internet sales also cut out retail costs, too.

          There isn’t much difference in cost or efficiency between getting a pattern online (some will cost money) and buying material (in the mail or that you go drive and get) and printing out some consumer good and seeing a picture online, having a factory “print it out” and then they send it to you in the mail or you go pick it up in person.

          The 3D goods will need to be as good a quality to compete, because it is already so cheap and efficient and easy to buy factory-produced goods, it almost can’t be easier, cheaper, or more efficient to do it at home.Report

      • Lyle in reply to Shazbot4 says:

        The difference is that Ikea decides what to stock, so its not custom, where as the shop mentioned would produce purely custom products, as indeed some machine shops do today. (Of course one has to ask if the additional cost of a custom produce is justified by its additional value over a non custom product). So the big difference is that 1 no inventory of finished goods, 2 everything is custom made. For a slightly different area, one sees this happening in the CD market right now, in the classical area at least one can get CD’s burned on demand so that the vendor does not need to keep an inventory with all the costs that that implies. The same is true of books. 3 d printing could do this to at least some other goods.Report

    • You’re surely right that at the moment, 3D printing produces only plastic goods…

      They print parts in a variety of metals (the general technique is called direct metal sintering/melting, or similar words). Stainless steel, titanium, brass, bronze, gold and silver are metals that I know are available. Material strength is on a par with casting. One of the interesting stories that appeared recently was about construction of a lower jaw for a woman who had some rapidly-progressing bone disease. A series of MRI images were used to model her entire jaw exactly, a titanium duplicate was printed, and surgery to replace the diseased jaw with the printed part was successful.

      The machines are, of course, bigger, much more expensive, and consume a lot more power.Report

  6. Rod Engelsman says:

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t see this tech, as cool as it is, being seriously disruptive to the mass-production paradigm. Why, I was just reading in that copy of Sci-Am that I printed up on my home printer the other day… wait, that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because it would take an hour or so of my time and cost probably five times as much as buying it on the newsstand. Cheap, ubiquitous, high quality printing tech didn’t disrupt the commercial printing industry–it took the advent of e-book tech to do that.

    On the other hand, just after reading this post, I caught a ride to Wal-mart with another driver in a partially restored, ’72 AMC Javelin. Cool little car; shades of my youth. Interior needs a lot of work, though. In particular, a number of plastic pieces on the dash, door panels, etc. are cracked, broken, or otherwise messed up. They’re also completely and totally unavailable commercially. The guy said he got an estimate from a guy that had an injection-molding business to replace all the interior panels for about $2500. I could see the same thing being done on a 3-d printer, more quickly, accurately, and for maybe a tenth the cost.

    The real beauty of these things if for unique, one-off items, prototyping, small-batch runs, personalization, etc. Additionally, I can see one of these being extremely useful in remote locations, off the beaten path of our factory-shipping-retail network. Places like McMurdo Station. It will be critical if we ever decide to colonize Mars or something.Report