3D printing: neither gimmick nor revolution

ESSAY: While additive manufacturing will be a very useful technology, it cannot transform the fortunes of capitalism.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

This essay was first published in the February edition of spiked plus.

3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, has become a subject that pumps out enthusiasts faster than any real-life 3D printer can churn out products. In conventional machining, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM) combine to make products or parts of products by cutting away at, drilling and otherwise manhandling materials. With 3D printing, CADCAM works with product scanners, other bits of IT and special plastics and metals to build products up, whether through the squirts of an inkjet-like device or the sintering of metal powder by lasers or electron beams.

Rather in the same way, America’s somewhat self-conscious Maker Movement – broadly, several thousand DIY fans out to revive manufacturing through the web and from the privacy of their own garages – promotes 3D printing with layer upon layer of hype.

It’s true that 3D printing has its good points. Without having to engage in expensive retooling, a 3D printer can easily be reprogrammed to make variations on a basic product – good for dental crowns, for example. 3D printing can also make intricate products with designs that cannot be emulated by conventional, ‘subtractive’ techniques. In principle, though not always in practice, 3D wastes less material than conventional techniques. And while jewellery, toys, footwear, the cases for mobile phones and other smallish items lend themselves to 3D, researchers at the European aerospace and defence giant EADS have for two years hoped that they will one day be able to print titanium components directly on to the structure of an entire wing of an Airbus.

Despite all this, those who blithely proclaim that 3D printing brings a revolution to manufacturing make a mistake. 3D printing does not represent a pervasive, durable and penetrating transformation of the dynamics and status of manufacturing. Nor, as The Economist newspaper has proposed, is its emergence akin to the birth of the printing press (1450), the steam engine (1750) or the transistor (1950). There is much to celebrate about 3D printing, and even its too-fervent advocates at least represent a reasonable desire to produce new kinds of things in new kinds of ways. Yet what characterises 3D printing is how, as with other powerful technologies today, it need only barely arrive on the world economic stage for zealots to overrate it, and for others to turn it into an object of fear.

From Web democracy to ‘democratising innovation in atoms’

From customised surgical implants to complex, lightweight components in the car industry, 3D seems to conquer everything before it. Indeed, not too long after the hipsters at Wired began to promote 3D, two editors from that stable quit to join In another telling move, Chris Anderson, for years editor-in-chief of Wired, left last year to become CEO of 3D Robotics, a company that uses 3D printing and robots to build civilian unmanned aerial vehicles – aeroplane drones and helicopter drones, ready to fly at $765.

Anderson’s book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (2012), is a big plea for 3D printing, and, though boosterish, is nevertheless instructive. Citing the famous and somewhat singular instance of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Anderson starts from the dubious premise that the Web has democratised innovation by closing the gap between invention and entrepreneurship. ‘Anyone with an idea for a service’, he intones, can ‘turn it into a product with some software code… [and go on to] “ship it” to a global market of billions of people’. Then, in the breezy style affected by Wired, the author goes on to instruct: ‘Just imagine what a similar model could to in the larger economy of Real Stuff.’

So the Web, we are told, democratised innovation in bits; and now a new class of rapid-prototyping technologies – machines that allow rough but functional designs to be turned out in a few hours or days – is, Anderson insists, ‘democratising innovation in atoms’. As a result, ‘anyone’ with an invention or good design can ‘upload files to a service to have that product made, in small batches or large, or make it themselves with increasingly powerful desktop fabrication tools such as 3D printers. Would-be entrepreneurs and inventors are no longer at the mercy of large companies to manufacture their ideas.’

In fact, seeing IT in general and the web in particular as forces on the side of democracy is an idea with a long and ill-distinguished past. For instance: in his seminal 1993 book, The Virtual Community, the prolific American author Howard Rheingold already put forward computer-mediated communications as a ‘democratising’ technology and as ‘a means of enhancing democracy’ . He forgot that democracy is a political matter, not a technical one that can be reduced to the movement of electrons.

What, then, is new about 3D printing? Do its high priests merely mark yet another American fad for attributing new kinds of liberating political powers to new technologies? After all, once the US and British media gave rave reviews to US pollster Nate Silver for correctly computing the outcome of the 2012 US presidential elections in all 50 states, it ought to have been clear how easily fondness for data-crunching technologies substitutes for political ideals nowadays.

Certainly the old idea of IT allowing someone like Michael Dell to build a corporate giant from his college dormitory room dies hard in the US. And those who exaggerate the power of 3D printing to turn everyone into a budding inventor /entrepreneur/manufacturer follow very much in this utopian tradition. But there is more to boosters of 3D than mere geekery or quackery.

The origins and significance of zeal about 3D printing

Given the financial shenanigans since the credit crunch of 2008, a revival of American interest in manufacturing, as a kind of ethical alternative to financial services, should be no surprise. Also, efforts to ‘reshore’ manufacturing from Asia back to the US are one area of common ground in American politics.

The average cost of a 3D printer as a product, both for use in industry and for use at a more residential scale, has declined enough in recent years for optimism about its potential to appear more than a little justified. Hobbyist, or entry-level printers now retail for as little as $1000; professional ones for as little as $10,000. There has been no democratisation of 3D printing, that’s for sure; but, like the PC of old, it has got cheaper, and therefore more accessible.

A desire to rebalance the economy, make it more resilient in the face of international pressures and take advantage of cheapened, sophisticated machinery: these three factors have ensured that those who evangelise for 3D printing today are a little bit more than just a new generation of youth (late-1990s) or social-media youth (mid-2000s) with a peculiar fascination for real-world manufacturing.

At bottom, 3D printing buffs seek economic revival in small firms, firms which, in Anderson’s view, are job-creating (unlike conventional manufacturing), both small and global, both artisanal and innovative, and both high-tech and low-cost. Those who are over-passionate about 3D printing are really just making a misguided, right-on, petit-bourgeois attempt to reform capitalism by sector – toward the tangible and moral certainties of manufacturing, rather than the caprice of the banks. On the world economy, as well, mania for 3D printing displays a strong bent toward protectionism, import substitution and national economic independence. That’s why, in his State of the Union address on 13 February 2013, President Barack Obama announced not only that 3D printing had ‘the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything’, but also that he wanted to add another 14 ‘manufacturing hubs’ to the $30million National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute that he set up in Youngstown, Ohio, last year. His purpose? To ‘guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America’.

In the case of American boosters of 3D printing, an autarchic vision of the American economy coincides with an autarchic vision of the American home. This should not blind us to the considerable achievements already made by 3D printers when they have been used by multinational corporations; but it certainly should give pause to anyone hoping that household-based 3D printing by adults is going to take the world by storm. Nevertheless, the appeal of 3D goes beyond a few American homes and garages, and beyond the multinational firm. Politically, the appeal is greatest among the world’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – always, for capitalism, the dominant source of employment, and always hailed as a major source of innovation.

It is not just Anderson and Obama in America who favour 3D printing. In the UK, the Lib-Con government has belatedly begun to talk it up, too. David Willetts, minister for universities and science at the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, has linked advanced materials, one of his own preferred ‘eight great technologies’, to 3D printing, and in October 2012 went so far as to announce all of £7million being made available for innovation in 3D.

The rational side of 3D printing

To his credit, Chris Anderson knows that conventional automation is here to stay. In Makers, he observes that ‘it’s the only way large-scale manufacturing can work in rich countries’. What can change, he believes, is the role of SMEs, which can, he says, ‘reinvent manufacturing’.

This is to get things round the wrong way. In one of the few reports to contain a balanced assessment of the limitations of 3D printing, the auditors and consultants Deloitte reported in early 2012 that sales of both consumer and commercial versions of 3D printers were unlikely to reach $200million that year, and that most revenue would likely come not from consumers, but from the business-to-business (B2B) market.

The figure of $200million sounds small, and could well be a big underestimate. Yet either way, the difference 3D printers will make is likely to be biggest among large firms – including firms that can build whole houses with 3D printing techniques.

Deloitte conceded that 3D printers are improving in accuracy enough to be able to make objects with moving parts; it also registered that 3D printing is ‘extremely useful for creating prototypes, highly customized items or small production runs’. However, the firm went on to list the following home truths:

  • 3D printing can mostly only fabricate relatively homogeneous objects made up of a small number of distinct materials. Printing out small, really complex electronics, or with multiple materials, remains tricky
  • the products of 3D printing are not as durable as conventional products
  • production runs with 3D printing ‘do not scale well beyond 10 items’
  • using a 3D printer ‘tends to be extremely expensive’.

Perhaps Deloitte was a little harsh. It could, however, only be right to argue that while some of 3D’s limitations ‘will be overcome in the medium term’, others ‘are the result of fundamental constraints that are unlikely to be resolved’.

3D printing is no gimmick and it will certainly change important dimensions of manufacturing. It is good for customised products and, working hand in hand with other technologies, can bring about remarkable results. But neither SMEs, nor 3D printers, can reinvent or revolutionise manufacturing. Despite their numbers and their populous employee base, SMEs never dominate a developed capitalist economy the way large, multinational, capital-exporting firms do. And 3D printers simply will not have the clout or the versatility that attended the development of, say, the personal computer.

Like the categories of nanotechnology and robotics, 3D covers a vast range of different techniques: if you register on the website and use the ‘3D printer selector’ tool there, you will see dozens of pages of different printers, listed by supplier, ‘build envelope’, market sector and printing material. However, 3D printing is a manufacturing technology that must both work with and compete with other wide-ranging technologies such as nanotechnology and robotics. For example, 3D printing must vie with other methods of prototyping and testing, such as Caterpillar’s ‘immersive visualisation’, which enables earth-shifting equipment to be designed with the aid of a ‘virtual cab’ that is climbed into like an aircraft simulator.

To do justice to 3D printing, it needs to be seen clearly, without rose-tinted spectacles, and in perspective. Let’s therefore now add a little more historical and contemporary perspective to the technology’s apostles, before dealing with those who, conversely, fear 3D printing today.

The irrational side of 3D printing (1): automated machinery inaugurates a new era

Behind the rise of euphoria about 3D printing lies not just experiences with the Web and a desire to revive indigenous manufacturing. We need also to recall, first, that America, land of the car, inventor of the assembly line and inventor of the sit-down strike, has paradoxically long dreamt of independent producers as an alternative to factories and mass production. It’s here that the subtitle to Rheingold’s Virtual Community, published 20 years ago, is very notable: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.

Growing your own IT, and now growing your own IT-based manufacturing with the help of 3D printers, has more than a whiff of the frontier American farmer of the nineteenth century. Of course, small firms, not just homesteaders, figure prominently in the new era thought to be inaugurated by 3D printing. Nevertheless, in a mass property-owning and share-owning economy like the US, it is the householder, perhaps aspiring to run a small and eventually a large firm, who has long been the ultimate hero in accounts of the future that centre on production technique. In his 1980 bestseller The Third Wave, for example, the renowned US futurologist Alvin Toffler famously coined the phrase ‘prosumer’ to describe consumers who, he believed, would more and more engage in production.

Toffler, an ex-member of the Communist Party of the USA, was one of the first to promote the mirage of the mass, cheap, batch production of differentiated products, with consumers specifying designs as their fast-changing lifestyles demanded. Around the same time, French left-wingers and others declared the end of what they called ‘Fordist’, uniform production and homogenous products. In place of these things, they said, had come post-Fordist, ‘flexible’ manufacturing with specialised, heterogenous outputs. Nobody mentioned 3D printers, for it was only in 1986 that Chuck Hull first patented ‘stereolithography’, a process in which a computer-directed beam of ultraviolet light is used to solidify liquid plastic. Nevertheless, the theoretical ground-rules for today’s 3D-printer cultists were firmly laid.

Of course, the technical possibility of automating production to make customised products at low cost is greater with 3D printers and other technologies in 2013 than it was in the Eighties. However, just as another app on your mobile phone tomorrow does not foretell a new era of buoyant, innovative capitalism, so does another thousand 3D printers sold over the Web not usher in a new mode of production. It is social and political relations, not the supposedly all-powerful influence of technology, which establish wholly new structures for creating wealth.

In the late Nineties, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose Media Lab was, as Anderson notes, the first to rhapsodise about atoms and bits, argued that the Web could bring about a radical change in economic regime. In the pages of a late-1998 Harvard Business Review, MIT’s Thomas Malone and Robert Laubacher suggested that the US auto industry had already moved toward a new economy of individual ‘e-lancers’ – one in which temporary, autonomous and self-organising coalitions of car designers and engineers could become multi-millionaires overnight. In the US automotive industry of the mid-21st century, the two academics argued, ‘while much of the venture capital goes to support traditional design concepts, some is allocated to more speculative, even wild-eyed ideas… A small coalition of engineers may, for example, receive funds to design a factory for making individualized lighting systems for car grilles’.

These different conceptions of IT-assisted individualism, each more facile than the last, might be thought to exhaust the homesteading ethos, and certainly should guard us against the sillier extremes of the Maker Movement. But there is more. In the realm of energy, hopes of a kind of hardy independence from electricity networks, powered by solar panels and other renewable energy sources, have bolstered the idea that, if ‘the personal is the political’, then the domestic can also be economic.

The irrational side of 3D printing (2): brownie points for being green

In his utopian environmentalist tract The Hydrogen Economy (2002) and his more recent The Third Industrial Revolution (2011), Jeremy Rifkin, always a taproot for Democratic Party fantasies about the future, looked forward to a homesteader America – one where every dwelling stored, generated and shared its own renewable energy. In a fresh delusion, Rifkin contends that 3D printing doesn’t just lower product costs and barriers to entry for aspiring manufacturers, but also lowers the use of materials and energy – oh yes, and democratises manufacturing, too.

To be charitable, perhaps the omnipotence, epochal and especially the democratic character invested in 3D printing is really just an exaggeration of the idea that tools normally reserved for The Experts have now become available to all with an interest in them. Yet in fact 3D is not available to everyone who is interested, just like PCs are not available to everyone. We already know how only the moneyed classes are able to win green brownie points through the design of their homes; as environmentalist pursuit, 3D printing promises to have an equally restricted audience.

In fact, facile interpretations of 3D printing as ‘good for the environment’ are quite widespread. They are facile because any serious spread of 3D printers would likely face… environmentalist objections. If run at anything like full tilt, 3D printers could all too easily be stigmatised as depleting raw materials, making more hateful ‘stuff’, and functioning as a danger to life and limb.

The irrational side of 3D (3): as grounds for fear

With all the magic properties conferred upon 3D printing, it would be odd if nobody had a problem with it. And that’s just the point: for all their innocuous qualities, 3D printing, robots and advanced fabrication techniques prompt a great deal of worry.

Foreign Affairs is the organ of the US foreign-policy establishment, and in the first place, the State Department. So when Neil Gershenfeld, head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, published ‘How to make almost anything: the digital fabrication revolution’ in that august journal in November 2012, what he had to say about 3D printing was worthy of attention. He began with some commendable good sense about the phenomenon: ‘Other computer-controlled tools can produce parts faster, or with finer features, or that are larger, lighter, or stronger. Glowing articles about 3-D printers read like the stories in the 1950s that proclaimed that microwave ovens were the future of cooking. Microwaves are convenient, but they don’t replace the rest of the kitchen.’

Gershenfeld then wrote about the establishment, in 2003, of the world’s first ‘fabrication laboratory’, or fab lab, which was bought as a kit consisting of a laser, 3D printer, small milling machines (total: $50,000) and clever materials (total: $20,000). However, he concluded his article in alarming style, arguing that ‘digital fabrication could be used to produce weapons of individual destruction’. ‘When I have briefed rooms of intelligence analysts or military leaders on digital fabrication’, he went on in a somewhat rueful vein, ‘some of them have invariably concluded that the technology must be restricted’.

In fact, Gershenfeld saw a role for digital fabrication not so much in the making of guns and arms generally, as in education, and in offering ‘at-risk youth’ a social service. However, the military types with whom Gershenfeld mixes fear 3D printing and techniques adjacent to it.

That much became clear, too, with the December 2012 publication of the US National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. This report held that 3D printing could ‘make more low- and semiskilled manufacturing workers in developed economies redundant, exacerbating domestic inequalities’. At the same time, the report worried that 3D printing in Asia could increase both that continent’s manufacturing capabilities, and its manufacturing competitiveness. Intelligence authorities in the US, therefore, seem to believe that their country is damned to suffer social problems if it does adopt 3D printing, and damned to suffer imports of 3D-printed products from Asia if it doesn’t. How awful is that?

Whether its worry is about 3D-printed guns, 3D-printed drones or 3D-printed civilian products exported from Asia, the US establishment has already given the lie to fairytales about 3D printing as a whole new democratising ballgame. Like any product, the 3D printer embodies conflictual social relations, and is no panacea.

Don’t let the evangelicals thwart 3D’s potential!

Both the hyping up and the fear of 3D printing are species of technological determinism – of a world view in which it is technology that independently creates society, rather than the other way round. Variously, commentators have thought that robots, IT, biotechnology and now digital fabrication are the ultimate ‘drivers’ of the future. All have been mistaken.

This article cannot go into today’s debate about whether innovation is speeding up or slowing down. However, in their rather fatalistic conceptions, both ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’ in that debate miss the point that innovation’s pace depends on society’s confidence, priorities and wherewithal. One of the major points in Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation is that the innovatory first and second industrial revolutions (roughly 1733-1800 and 1880-1918) coincided with ‘new hopes in the possibility and necessity of progress’. The West sorely lacks these hopes today – and that fact can only impair the prospects for really taking advantage of 3D printing, just as much as it will slow moves toward driverless cars, fusion power and the human exploration of Mars.

That’s a pity, because 3D printing and the technologies near it have a great deal to recommend them. In Manitoba, Canada, a tiny hybrid electric three-wheeler vehicle has had its whole body made by a 3D printer – even if the process took all of three months. At Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, scientists hope to use stem cells as the material with which to make tissues and organs through 3D printing. In the US and South Africa, the designers of Robohand, an artificial hand, have published the software to have it made by MakerBot 3D printers. The designers have already successfully given Liam, a five-year old boy without a hand, a finalised working version of the prosthetic hand – one that should be easy to scale up and reprint for Liam as he grows up.

These achievements of 3D printing are not in question. But the application of 3D printing will not be helped by its aficionados getting evangelical about it.

From Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) through to a succession of later labour and farmers’ movements, anti-monopoly republicanism, cooperative individualism and various forms of ‘producer ideology’ were often salient in American thought and deed. As the US labour historian Eric Foner also points out in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: ‘Throughout the nineteenth century, the “small producer ideology”, resting on such tenets as equal citizenship, pride in craft, and the benefits of economic autonomy, underpinned a widespread hostility to wage labor, as well as to “non-producers” who prospered from the labor of others. The ideology of free labor would emerge, in part, from this vision of America as a producer’s republic.’

Over the nineteenth century, many movements in the US expressed their own kind of fondness for local, often engineering-based solutions separate from the city, the state and big capital. It is true that the term ‘republicanism’ is too elastic to have much value as a factor in American history. However from Ben Franklin onward, America, a country largely created anew, has always treated technology and engineering with more than a little misty-eyed affection.

In one sense this affection, and its display around 3D printers, is a good thing, given all the hostility that accompanies mankind’s technical achievements nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s entirely wrong to try to represent 3D printing as any kind of Brave New World. The emancipation of mankind rests not just upon machines, but also, and more, upon what mankind chooses to do with them.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and co-author of Energise: a future for energy innovation.

Paul Reeves and Martin Stevens contributed research to this article.

This essay was first published in the February edition of spiked plus.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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