3D printers' could change our economy and our lives

Oct 15, 2013 by Dennis Walikainen
3D printers’ could change our economy and our lives
Printers like this can change the economy and peoples' lives.

(Phys.org) —"When you produce something yourself instead of purchasing it, that changes your relationship to it," says Chelsea Schelly, assistant professor of social sciences. She's discussing the current popular trend of 3D printing. "You are empowered by it."

That principle might sound simple, but its ramifications can be wide ranging, especially for middle and high school educators. That's where Schelly's research began: studying a teacher workshop coordinated by 3D printing guru Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

During the workshop, one of the local produced a valuable part and a teachable moment at the same time.

"He needed a snowblower part that would normally cost $200," Schelly says. "Instead, he made it himself and saved the money." And he saved the hassle of bringing the machine to the shop to get it fixed."

And his students in the snow-laden school district clearly got the relevance of that example.

They routinely beg to stay after school to make their own creations on the printer.

"The early feedback from the teachers is that the students are more engaged," she says. "They take pride in making these things for themselves. This could be seen as part of the larger 'maker's movement,' where people are doing their own production processes."

Creating and using on houses, which Schelly also studies, are another example.

"It can be socially transformative," she says. It can also have some negative consequences, at least initially, she adds.

"This can affect manufacturing jobs and potentially put people out of work," Schelly says. "Although the low-wage and low-skill work could be affected, like those products produced in China, other positive changes might occur."

Pearce agrees.

He sees prices coming down as more people print their own products, especially as the price of the printers comes down.

"As 3D printing was open-sourced, the costs plummeted from tens of thousands of dollars to $1,600 for assembled printers today, and the new RepRap printers are down to $500 in parts," he points out. "As the price drop continues, they will become household items, like desktop printers."

And, since you can print additional printers, that day might be sooner than originally thought.

"This has the potential to disrupt the way we manufacture," Pearce says.

He has several examples in his office. One was a centrifuge created to work with an electric drill; another was a component for solar panels.

"The number of designs is exploding," Pearce says. Users have tried them, proved they work, and with open-source, they pass on the directions, enabling the technology to evolve much faster than normal. "There are a lot of helpers out there," he explains. "Give us what you've got, and we'll build on it and give you what we've got—and we all benefit."

This new market system is even more prevalent overseas. In Shanzhai open-source hardware is the rule, not the exception.

"An open-source Chinese smartphone , made with a 3D printer, was posted online for $130, and 100,000 sold in 90 seconds," Pearce says.

Schelly is also focused on possible economic policy changes, such as the lowering of the full-time workweek from 40 hours to 30, which might be another offshoot of this type of enterprise. The free time could then be used for more self-sufficiency efforts, and more people could be employed, if fewer work hours are the norm.

"It also is a reflection of what we want people engaged in: something other than mindless, menial tasks," she says. "It could mean getting the imports from China out of the cycle. Printers could be organized in the US at the community scale."

It requires a new attitude, but she was surprised at how quickly those teachers changed their mind-sets.

"In just three days, they could see the environmental value," Schelly says. "They were empowered, and the fact that they made this, and their students will make more, means that the students will be inspired, too, instead of passively consuming."

Thanks to the ability of printers to replicate themselves, Schelly can foresee the day when those high school teachers run their own workshops.

"There are open source, visual, online instructions," she says. "If any teacher can do it, so what happens now?"

It's a question she'll be examining as she continues her research, and Pearce continues to pursue printing just about anything.

Explore further: 3-D printing: Making your own saves energy, scientist says

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triplehelix
1 / 5 (10) Oct 15, 2013
This may sound silly. But what is stopping those with access to 3D printers making guns, or other violent equipment and arming gangs etc or just doing your own vigilante justice?

Just worries me that usually you would have to buy the weaponary, get it shipped, get it delivered etc without getting caught, which police bust many times. Now criminals can just buy a 3D printer, probably the only people who can afford one these days and make a ton of weaponary.
DistortedSignature
1 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2013
@triplehelix I'm not saying it can't happen eventually but current printing technology can't produce quality guns. I believe earlier in the year (or last year?) a blue print was made and the video for the proof of concept was very inconclusive. It was a one shot sort of gun and some were susceptible to exploding in the user's hand. These are all second hand accounts though. I don't think mainstream 3D printing is at the metallurgy status yet.

There's always a way to exploit technology for malicious intent. What's stopping someone from using a self-driven car as a car bomb? Biological warfare with the increased understanding of the human genome as well as nanorobots.
GSwift7
3 / 5 (4) Oct 15, 2013
The ability to make your own gun isn't new. You can make something that will fire bullets with hardware store parts and a few simple power tools. There's a pair of books called the anarchist's cookbook that show how to make all kinds of nasty stuff like traps, poison, weapons, bombs, etc. and most of it is made of housewares.

There are only a few 3d printers that print in metal, and they are extremely expensive. There was a guy that made a plastic rifle a few months ago and fired it a bunch of times. If that becomes common, then there's just got to be some other kind of control, like limiting the purchase of bullets, or bigger fines for getting caught with an illegal gun.

I don't see that firearms will be any bigger problem than they already are. Anyone who wants a gun right now can get one, and the illegal ones aren't even expensive. Anyone who wants to do something really bad already has plenty of access to weapons, even if they have to steal them.
LariAnn
1.5 / 5 (8) Oct 15, 2013
I see a next step as being the ability to use recycled household materials (i.e. plastics) as raw material for the 3D printer to use to make new things. In this way, the user can recycle plastics in real time at home and not just put them in a container to be carted away. Those who sell products like milk and other things that come in plastic will have to start making them without those impossible-to-remove labels, though, to make this work.
Jimbaloid
3 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2013
When you produce something yourself instead of purchasing it, that changes your relationship to it
I think perhaps what was meant here is "When you design something yourself". I'm not so convinced there will be any significantly different relationship to something you just download and print. In fact if 3D printing becomes too fast, cheap and easy, it may even be that people see things as ever more disposable - that relationship might become one of 'well I can always print another'.
NikFromNYC
2 / 5 (15) Oct 15, 2013
Schizophrenic puff piece: robotics will now "increase" employment by the process of decreasing work hours! Has access to sewing machines and shared patterns revolutionized the average person's modern life? This article is boilerplate PR hype for a tiny number of companies relying on expired patents to produce mere toy versions of 1990s machinery that is only truly useful to highly skilled 3D modeling experts at product design firms. It's not these craft hobby market desktop machines that are revolutionizing creativity but the highly cutting edge nanoscale 3D printers that finally allow R&D science and engineering efforts to make microscopic physical parts on the fly in a tight and dynamic creative cycle that can carry on late at night and on weekends instead of suffer long outsourcing delays. It is the opposite of democratizing though! You must learn Grasshopper within Rhino to access parametric 3D design beyond what hipster web sites afford for useless lamp or shoe customization.
hemitite
1.8 / 5 (10) Oct 15, 2013
Well this may well be the real test of Marx's theory of labor. It may also be the mass revival of both cottage industry and the barter system with the web a giant (gianter?) market place both for the exchange of items and of print designs.

If that happens, governments everywhere would be desperately trying to figure out how to enforce taxes on this new model economy.
NikFromNYC
1.6 / 5 (13) Oct 15, 2013
The plastics these consumer machines use are inherently inexpensive so the high price of filament is a joke more serious people may refer to as a rip off. If there really were a mass market for these things, spools of mere plastic string would be a hundredth of MakerBot's price. Everyone knows this already, in their mind and in their gut. We are suffering from an age of decadence and corresponding hype that now has so little moral backbone that outright lies have become the popular norm. At "makers" fairs the world over and especially in Long Island there are seen two dozen 3D printer companies all displaying the same stupid Stanford bunny and Yoda head, year after year, all the while the rare CNC router company has stuff you'd actually want to buy as craft objects. Overhead, finishing cycles, bulk materials sourcing and expertise all enjoy economic leverage within real companies that specialize in cranking out CNC or 3D printed, injection molded, or pattern stitched textiles, etc.
NikFromNYC
1.6 / 5 (13) Oct 15, 2013
In any US state thousands but not millions of hobby craftsmen create wood and metal household items and thousands but not millions of sewing machine owners and knitters crank out wonderful dresses and sweaters for their extended family. A few make fiberglass composite vehicle and sports equipment, but nearly nobody makes plastic crap.

3D printing of metals is a serious industrial process, *not* the equivalent of an inkjet printer. The mere fact that companies didn't trivially produce dumbed down consumer machines *before* their patents expired is itself the clearest evidence that the PR machine of a few companies is working overtime, merely. The neighborhood craftsman can already carve you a replacement snow blower handle, you know, by whittling an old broom stick, but go over and ask him to design it on a computer and you're out of luck, and always will be because 3D digital design expertise is even less common than mad Photoshop skillz.

Consumers don't buy buffing machines!
krundoloss
1.4 / 5 (10) Oct 15, 2013
Whoa. What's up with the Debbie downer mentality? There are lots of products that can be made with a 3-D printer that the average person would find a use for. You could make: Action Figures, Customized grips and handles for anything, Cellphone Cases, Dishware, Shoes, Hairclips, customized cases for anything, Picture Frames, machine parts, Toys, and many other things. It will become much more common as the prices come down. With the sharing of information online, so many designs are/will be freely available to the laymen. These school kids are making things, so it cannot be that difficult.
Since there is so little manufacturing done in the USA, I don't think the economic consequences will be significant for a while, here at least. China and other Asian countries make a lot of injection molded products, which could be offset severely by the use of 3-D printers.
I really like the prospects of this technology. I do not, however, like the instant fear-mongering that has come withit
krundoloss
2.5 / 5 (13) Oct 15, 2013
I think it is down-right sad that people say "What if you printed a gun?" when the possibilities for so many great things exist, people go straight to the fear of someone making a gun. Guns are not that big of a problem, people!! Besides, bullets produce 20,000 to 70,000 psi when they fire, and that is too much for current 3-D Printer substrates. Could you just buy a gun barrel and build the rest of the gun with the printer? Probably. You could make a pipe bomb without a 3d printer. People can make weapons if they want, you cant stop them.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2013
NicFromNYC made a lot of good points, if you can ignore the ranting tone of the posts. I actually agree with the content of his posts.

As long as you can only print a limited range of plastic materials, the utility is going to be limited in terms of mass market.

I can totally see these used in special applications though. For example, a mobile repair technician, like a photo copier tech, might save time/money with a 3d printer in their truck. They would access designs from their manufacturer of course.

Or, perhaps in stead of seeing certain consumer items shipped with accessory parts, there could be a list of downloadable plans (for $2.00 each on iTunes?).

As Nic points out, the machines and raw materials are too expensive to waste on kitchen utensiles right now. But even if the prices drop dramatically, it's hard to justify making most of the things you can get at walmart.

special situations, but not mainstream mass market goods.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2013
There might be a business opportunity here though.

There are companies who spend a lot of money shipping replacement parts under warranty agreements. Perhaps a local 3rd party vendor could set up a printing shop to provide replacement parts to customers? I'm thinking in terms of someplace like Best Buy or Radio Shack, or the walmart photo center. They could also print custom items for the public for a fee (I'm surprised they don't already do that).

The photo centers are a good model actually, since people are totally capable of printing their own photos at home now. Funny how people still use the photo centers at Walgreens or Walmart, isn't it?
Eikka
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 15, 2013
lowering of the full-time workweek from 40 hours to 30, which might be another offshoot of this type of enterprise. The free time could then be used for more self-sufficiency efforts, and more people could be employed, if fewer work hours are the norm.


Cutting hours is only going to work if you also increase wages because people won't take too kindly if you slash their salaries by a quarter. But if you increase wages, you also need to see the same increase in productivity or your labor costs just went up, making your products more expensive. But even when worker productivity increases, it still makes no sense to hire two people to do what could reasonably be done by one, because it costs more.

It actually costs more than twice as much because there's logistics and organizational overhead in having too many people working on a single task. Take for example, if you change from three shifts to four shifts, you introduce additional delays in the changeover.
Noumenon
3.7 / 5 (29) Oct 15, 2013
China and other Asian countries make a lot of injection molded products, which could be offset severely by the use of 3-D printers.


Actually, 3D printers are a large step backward wrt mass production, which is why they are only good for one-off parts, prototyping, or to clutter your desk with nonsense.

For example, the speed of 3D printers is measured in mm/sec, which could translate to hours for a large part, while injection molding is not restricted in speed with size of part and can crank out large parts in 20 seconds.
Eikka
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 15, 2013
Actually, 3D printers are a large step backward wrt mass production


Unless you use them to produce injection molds out of plastic that has a higher melting point than what you're injecting. Resin casting is also an option for small scale mass-manufacturing.

The largest cost in mass-manufacturing molded plastic parts is actually the tooling of the mold. Ironically, if you can 3D print the mold, the setup time and cost is slashed and smaller and smaller runs become profitable, or larger runs become cheaper and cheaper. That means your home printed plastic trinkets are still going to be much more expensive than what you get from the store.

Noumenon
3.6 / 5 (28) Oct 15, 2013
Actually, 3D printers are a large step backward wrt mass production


Unless you use them to produce injection molds out of plastic that has a higher melting point than what you're injecting. Resin casting is also an option for small scale mass-manufacturing.

The largest cost in mass-manufacturing molded plastic parts is actually the tooling of the mold. Ironically, if you can 3D print the mold, the setup time and cost is slashed and smaller and smaller runs become profitable, or larger runs become cheaper and cheaper. That means your home printed plastic trinkets are still going to be much more expensive than what you get from the store.



That won't work. Injection molds weigh hundreds of pounds and are made out of metal for a reason. They must endure injection pressures of 10,000 to 30,000 psi and even higher, which in turn means that they must be clamped shut with enormous force depending on the cross sectional area,... a few hundred tons say.
VendicarE
2 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2013
"Has access to sewing machines and shared patterns revolutionized the average person's modern life?" - NikkieyTard

Yes, as a matter of fact.

Before sewing machines were invented, women had to spend a large amount of their time on maintaining family clothing. Middle-class housewives, even with the aid of a hired seamstress, would have to spend several days of every month on this task. It would take a seamstress some 14 hours to make a dress shirt for a man; a dress took 10 hours, and a pair of summer pants nearly three hours. Most individuals would have only two sets of clothing: a work outfit and a Sunday outfit.

Sewing machines reduced the time for making a dress shirt to one hour 15 minutes, the time to make a dress to an hour,[18] and the time for a pair of summer pants to 38 minutes.
This reduced labor resulted in women having a diminished role in household management, and allowed more hours for their own leisure as well as the ability to seek more employment,

VendicarE
2.5 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2013
http://en.wikiped...ckstitch

Poor NikkieTard. As devoid from Reality as Always.

He should visit his local JC-Pennies or Walmart and see how sewing machines have revolutionized the clothing industry, and his life.

NikFromNYC
1.7 / 5 (12) Oct 15, 2013
Vendicar, indeed I may be wrong. I hated Twitter, which I now see it as elegant. Nuance does exist, I fear, always and forever, as I try to simplify.
VendicarE
1 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2013
Sounds like you have an imaginary PHD in Chemistry NikkieTard.
Eikka
1 / 5 (6) Oct 16, 2013
That won't work. Injection molds weigh hundreds of pounds and are made out of metal for a reason. They must endure injection pressures of 10,000 to 30,000 psi and even higher, which in turn means that they must be clamped shut with enormous force depending on the cross sectional area,... a few hundred tons say.


Well, too bad then that someone has already made a working injection mold out of 3D printed plastic: http://www.youtub...VuCcXbzk
QuixoteJ
2 / 5 (8) Oct 16, 2013
I think 3-D printing is way cool and can help many, many engineers/artists/fabricators/etc test prototype designs for real cheap (almost no cost compared to outsourcing or buying standard equipment). But to imply that everyone can start producing useful objects at low cost that replace the versions they buy at the store, leaves out the reality of quality control and manufacturing engineering--two things that have been accounted for in off-the-shelf products to a high degree.

I also believe the process of actually using a 3-D printer and tweaking designs (not to mention starting from scratch and going through your own R&D process) is way too much effort for the new generation that is hopelessy hypnotized by instant gratification mobile tech, poking at their cellphones and tablets like monkeys all day.
Noumenon
3.6 / 5 (25) Oct 16, 2013
That won't work. Injection molds weigh hundreds of pounds and are made out of metal for a reason. They must endure injection pressures of 10,000 to 30,000 psi and even higher, which in turn means that they must be clamped shut with enormous force depending on the cross sectional area,... a few hundred tons say.


Well, too bad then that someone has already made a working injection mold out of 3D printed plastic: http://www.youtub...VuCcXbzk


It looks fine for sampling prototypes only, not mass production. No way that mold would last but a dozen cycles, and is low pressure molding <5k psi with 16k lb clamp force, so it is very limited.

If they could 3D print powdered metal mixed with a binder then baked off, the resulting cavities could conceivably be mounted in a mold base for mass production though.
Eikka
1.5 / 5 (8) Oct 16, 2013
It looks fine for sampling prototypes


That's what it's made for. Producing the mold costs a lot of money, and prototyping it out of plastic saves a lot of money.

If they could 3D print powdered metal mixed with a binder then baked off, the resulting cavities could conceivably be mounted in a mold base for mass production though.


They can. Sintered 3D prints can also be infused with another metal to improve on the surface quality and strenght, and finishing touches such as surface polishing can be accomplished the traditional way. All these save time and money to make mass production cheaper.
GSwift7
not rated yet Oct 16, 2013
If they could 3D print powdered metal mixed with a binder then baked off, the resulting cavities could conceivably be mounted in a mold base for mass production though


There are a few systems like that, but you're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy one like that. They deposit a layer of metal powder and then zap the parts they want to 'stick' with a high power laser. NASA uses one to prototype rocket engine parts out of titanium alloys. You'll never see a system like that for consumer use though. The system has to be kept at a certain temperature and pressure and it requires a pure inert gas atmosphere. Also, the raw material metal powder is hazardous, as well as the waste powder.

So, unless they find a safe way to handle and sinter the metal powders, there won't be a do-it-yourself version for metal fabrication.
Eikka
1.9 / 5 (9) Oct 16, 2013

But, If you're making just a few copies anyways, your alternatives previously were to cut them individually on a CNC mill, or print individually on a 3D printer, both extremely costly. It takes a day for a machine to print one part or mill it out of a block, which is what makes small runs so expensive because they bind up the equipment.

Instead of wasting days of expensive machine time and tool wear, you can make few disposable molds first and press a couple dozen copies from each, giving you a hundred copies in virtually the same time it would have taken to make just the few. In a sense, it can be seen as amplifying the printing process by multiplying its output 10-20 fold, giving you more bang per buck.

Plus, the injection/resin molded part is superior to the 3D printed part because of its uniform material qualities.
Modernmystic
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 16, 2013
Well this may well be the real test of Marx's theory of labor...


You can test it now. Pound a hammer in the ground for eight hours and see what you end up with with only the application of raw labor. Wealth and labor aren't really related. You can even automate to the point where your wealth creates wealth. The real source of wealth is ideas, labor just helps "spread the wealth"...

Nanotechnology, which this is the precursor of, will illustrate that point possibly quite painfully.
Eikka
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 16, 2013
So, unless they find a safe way to handle and sinter the metal powders, there won't be a do-it-yourself version for metal fabrication.


Shapeways already does that by first binding the metal together with glue and then infusing it with another metal in an oven where the glue burns off and is replaced by the metal. All this is done by basically setting the glued part in a tray and surrounding it with sand to hold it in place while the molten metal wicks up into it.

Home fabrication would be limited to low melting point alloys like tin, but it's technically feasible to "bake" your own metal parts like that in an ordinary oven.
Eikka
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 16, 2013
The real source of wealth is ideas, labor just helps "spread the wealth"...


The real source of wealth is actually nature. Ideas just reveal how to get at it.

So if you want to discuss economic theories, you should really ask "who owns the sun?".

If you say "nobody", then how do you justify that some idea-makers monopolize access to the sun's energy by monopolizing the ideas that enable you to make use of it by patents and lisence fees?

Modernmystic
1 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2013
The real source of wealth is actually nature. Ideas just reveal how to get at it.


They "just" do that...hmmmm...

I guess it depends on how you define wealth, doesn't it. We don't define it the same way, so until we can agree on that there is very little point in discussing it I think.

So if you want to discuss economic theories, you should really ask "who owns the sun?".


Why? You're talking about ownership. I'm talking about theories of labor. Do want my opinion on primacy of ownership?

PhyOrgSux
1 / 5 (3) Oct 20, 2013
Currently these printers only make it possible to print in specific types of plastics. Not all that useful, even though there is a device available for melting plastic so that it can then be used for these printers. Additionally there is at least one company that provide services to do the printing for you...but it will still be in plastic. It wont replace most gadgets or cloths anytime soon (ok, at least not until we get to modeling other materials in them). I for one would like to be able to print my own invisibility cloak but I guess I have to build my own printer for that.