Chris Anderson on 3D Printing

He talks with Russ Roberts. He views it as a general-purpose technology, like the personal computer. I have some doubts about the analogy. It might be more analogous to digital technology in music production. In theory, digital music studios empower anyone to become a recording artist. In practice, only a limited number of people have the time, inclination, and aptitude to create music.

Still, it is a fascinating discussion. The ability to prototype and test-market products cheaply should lead to faster evolution in product development, even if the number of people who join the “maker movement” is smaller than Anderson anticipates.

6 thoughts on “Chris Anderson on 3D Printing

  1. I didn’t listen to the podcast, so they may have discussed this as well, but I would think the more important impact long term is the ability to eliminate the need for expensive channels of distribution for low volume sales of parts, opening up demand for machining that was, until now, insufficient. It will change the calculation of what complex machinery can be brought to market, making very short run manufacturing possible.

  2. The tech is highly overblown, so it makes perfect sense that Anderson is pushing it. ;) The product of these machines is not very good and really only suffices as a toy model of what you might want the final product to look like. That might be good for some early-stage prototyping, but that’s about it. Will it ever be worthwhile someday? If there are a lot more breakthroughs that allow cheap machining of real materials used in real products today, something nobody can predict and which is likely decades away. The podcast is worth listening to, as he talks about a more important effect, that tinkerers can get a lot more done and communicated with the internet today than they could for centuries. But 3D printing itself is overhyped and likely won’t go very far in the near future.

  3. I don’t really see it as ever becoming something that everyone has in their home, not unless it’s part of a home business or hobby. More likely is that as the technology improves, you’ll be able to get a far wider variety of customized goods alongside larger production runs of stuff ( meaning that you’re probably not going to be printing your own screws).

    Don’t under-estimate the “proto-typing” and “small run customized products” factor, though. US manufacturing is already shifting in many ways towards smaller runs of more diverse products (the NYT had a good article on it a few months ago), and this only accelerates that trend.

  4. Your analysis is probably right for where we are today but it’s possible that 3D printing will eventually allow people to buy stuff that other people designed like computers allow people to buy music that other people sang. If the printers are able to print metals then you could print out a new cell phone or even a laptop computer, for example. Even with current technology, there are many thing that could be printed instead of bought. Need a new grip for your gun? Need a margarita glass for one more guest?

  5. The technology as currently realized at hobbyist prices is, as Ajay notes, being significantly overhyped. However!
    (1) Professional-grade 3D printing equipment ($20K and up) can currently produce really high-quality parts, in a variety of materials. If you need a one-off, fully-functional replacement plastic part for your old car (or a knob for a vintage radio, or whatever), sending a CAD file and a credit-card number to one of the fab services will get you the part at a cost higher than a mass-produced part, but without the need to tool up for mass production. Creating the CAD file is left as an exercise for the student.
    (1a) Those who create designs now have a way to get the things they design manufactured in small quantities, on demand, without tooling costs. You’re paying for some tiny fraction of the service bureau’s printer, but not for having a mold designed and machined. To expand on Joe Cushing’s suggestion: need a new *custom* grip for your gun? The grip designer now has an easy way to get it made.
    (2) There are several areas in price/quality/capability space where 3D printers make sense, and not all of these are currently occupied. Expect a future generation of 3D printers (within the next couple of years, using pretty much established technology) to have a widespread disruptive influence.

    I’m looking at getting one of the better hobby-grade machines myself within the next few months, for various prototyping, temporary fixtures, and such. While the business case for having my own vs. using a service is a bit of a stretch, having my own would encourage me to do more prototyping (because, hey, the machine is already paid for, and now the costs are just plastic, electricity, and time), and perhaps more imaginative product development.

  6. My take is that once the price comes down considerably, the machines need much less constant tweaking, and the UI simplifies, everyone will have one of these, in some form – possibly in the kitchen, or in the garage (though getting it into the kitchen would be the “killer app”). The ability to crank out a small, custom object, on demand, with no travel time, will become hip, then common, then will sink into the background once the Microsoft or Apple of the time completely demos these to the masses. Suggesting that these will eventually be pervasive belies the examples of small tech in the hands of the relatively free market of the past 50 years. (Why would you need these “television shows” in your home? You only go to the theatre twice a year now, and books are so inexpensive now. More that that doesn’t make any sense.)

    Personally I’d love to see it happen, if only just to see a bit more control move from Customs & Excise into the average person’s hands.

    Right now they feel like old Tandy or 8088 boxes that you’d buy as a kit and build, just so you could write code to load something onto fidonet – still fun for a core of enthusiasts, but not widely persuasive.