Today is rare to find someone who does not know what a 3D printer is. The popularity of this technology boomed in 2009 when the first FDM patents expired. Despite being a technology almost 30 years old, it remained a process for industrial prototyping until the expiration of the patents allowed open-sourced manufacturers to create the first desktop 3D printers. Thanks to this release the price of 3D printers fell 55% with desktop printers available for $1,000.00 USD. Such a drastic decrease pumped expectations of journalists and makers who even compared the desktop printer with the Replicator in Star Trek series. In the Sci-Fi series, the Replicator is a machine that rearranges molecular structure in order to synthesize food or other necessary objects for space exploration. Similarly, initial claims suggested that in the future 3D printing would allow everyone to print everything they wanted everywhere they wanted just by pushing a button. Despite not being able to do this yet, much of the popularity of the 3D printer comes from its availability, or what some journalists consider its ability to “democratize manufacturing”.
However, the introduction of 3D printing has gained more traction in industrial instead of desktop applications. Unfortunately, while the growth of the 3D printing industry in 2015 reached $5.1 Billion USD, desktop printers only accounted for an approximate of 25% of the total value of the industry with 278,000 sold units. This means that the real impact of 3D printing can be found in corporations and businesses that currently experiment new applications of prototypes and finished products. For example, according to PWC in 2014, 67% of manufacturers already used 3D printing (2014). Nevertheless, it is important to stress that from those companies that already use printers, just 2.6% use them to fabricate products that cannot be made through traditional methods. Which means that almost all of them are trying to find a way to use it or are just prototyping products that later will be fabricated by other means. Accordingly Michael Stern, from the department of mechanical engineering at MIT, suggests that what we see underlying this apparent boom in the diffusion of 3D printing is a direct substitution fallacy (2015). This means that despite 3D printing can be used to create almost anything just like the Replicator, we are just using it to substitute current manufacturing processes instead of creating something really new.
This raises a huge problem because we already know that additive manufacturing processes (the name of 3D printing in fabrication) cannot substitute traditional manufacturing methods in terms of scale. Comparative analyses have been made by many researchers that confirm that 3D printing is a manufacturing process that must be used to create small and complex batches of products. Economies of scale are a benefit of specializing businesses in just one activity. Making a mold for the production of millions of fidget spinners will always be more effective than 3D printing them. And as we know, manufacturing a mold requires a huge investment. Unfortunately, when we talk about the “democratization of technology” what we really want is the ability to create freely. However, what we seem to be doing is just doing the same stuff in a very unproductive way which might not help the growth of desktop 3D printing.
Does that mean that the claims of 3D printing potential were all wrong? It is important to say that we have to be always extremely critical with technological hypes suggested by media. The introduction of technology and innovation is always an uncertain matter. Accordingly, predictions and forecasts are more similar to promises that to prophecies. Yet, the properties of the 3D printing process that gave birth to those claims are still true. Therefore I argue that we need to have a better understanding of the affordances that we can access through 3D printing, in order to make a clear image of this democratization of technology and be free to fabricate.
What is really new about 3D printing?
As you might have read somewhere else, 3D printing is a process that allows the creation of freeform bodies. It does so by adding layers of material instead of subtracting it from a big raw piece. This allows it to build precise volumes by placing material where other processes are not able to do the same. Almost all 3D printers use only the material necessary to build the assigned product (some use support material that can be minimized according to the design). This means, that as long as printed products have the same mass, they will have the same cost. This is called “complexity freedom” and is the source of all those extraordinary Replicator claims. Let’s examine what it means.
Complexity is the property of systems that are assembled of many components which have relationships between themselves. The more components and relationships in a system, the more complex the system is. From that perspective, a spoon is not as complex as a pair of scissors. A spoon might have 3-5 components with 2-3 interfaces, whereas a pair of scissors can have 7-10 parts with 5 interfaces which makes it more complex than the spoon. Complexity can also be understood in two categories; functional complexity and manufacturing complexity. Functional complexity is the one that is related to the way the system fulfills its purpose. To fulfill more complex purposes, systems regularly need more components. For instance, the functional complexity of the spoon requires at least one part for food and another for handling. Differently, manufacturing complexity is the one related to the fabrication process. Manufacturing processes and materials have restrictions, which means that For example, fabricating a wooden spoon allows us to keep the architecture simple, whereas fabricating it with injection molding will force us to include more elements such as ribs and frames that helps the structure of the spoon. In traditional manufacturing, increasing functional complexity usually also increases manufacturing complexity and as a result, fabrication cost. For the same reason, that who owns the more complex part of a product usually gets more revenue from sales. When we say that 3D printing gives us “complexity freedom” is because they break this relationship between functional and manufacturing complexity. This means that when we use a 3D printer, our products can involve a greater number of functional components without increasing the manufacturing cost! Consequently, the cost of production is the same for a cube or for a working clock as long as they have the same mass.
The problem here is that we have always designed our products thinking of a manufacturing process and the restrictions it creates for product complexity. The design process has always been considered a negotiation between the objectives that you have to accomplish with your design, and the possibilities that your resources can afford. There is even a term called Design For Manufacturing and Assembly (DFMA) surged in the 1980’s and 1990’s which looks for the integration of manufacturing knowledge in the design process. So, what shall we do when the process itself has no restrictions? Remi Ponche and his colleagues at the Institut de Recherche en Communications et Cybernetique de Nantes in France suggest that we need to change the way we think of the relationships between our processes and our product. In traditional DFMA we have knowledge of geometries that are possible through the different processes. This pre-defines our available results letting the 3D printer just add a little more value to the design that we have already finished before using the printer. The researchers call this a partial approach because it does not consider the printer completely. What they propose as a global approach is designing with the printer itself. They suggest a process where the volume of the product is developed step by step according to its functional requirements and its position inside the 3D printing volume. Going back to the complexity talk, a process like this helps us exploit the available “complexity freedom”. Allowing us to use the printing volume as an interface that joins all the components that we can insert into it. Therefore, when we claim that the printer can help us create whatever we want, we must correct to say that 3D printing allows us to create complex objects that combine multifunctional components.
Vive la impression 3D!
Back to the argument for the democratization of technology, we can now say that having a 3D printer at home can give us a tool for the creation of complex combinatory products. But, why would we like to do complex products instead of printing awesome avenger rings? Well, there is a very good reason in what Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek called, the creative powers of a free society. For Hayek, it is very important to accept that despite knowing a lot of things through science, the most important thing we must accept is that as individuals we are pretty ignorant. The world we live in is incredibly complex and it is impossible for everyone to know it all, regardless our academic education. Driving a car is a very good example. For you to drive a car you only need to understand the car controls and the traffic rules. Nevertheless, the car and all the other artefacts, traditions, and institutions around you, have evolved thousands of years by incorporating knowledge of the people that created and perfectioned them. Luckily for you, you only have to take a few driving lessons and pass a test! As this example shows, the progress of our wellbeing is built around the creative solutions that accumulate through time. By people who find a problem and create solutions that later help everyone else. For Hayek, this creative process should be accessible to all. If in the past one person like Leonardo DaVinci, could create so many incredible ideas and solutions just imagine what could happen if we all had the same possibilities that DaVinci had! In a free society, people should have access to creative tools that help them in the creation of new solutions no matter what they are. The 3D printer is one of those tools that have the potential to allow people to combine ideas and create novel solutions for all of us. We just need to learn how to create complex ideas that make use of the capabilities of the 3D printer.
Exploiting this complexity is a difficult challenge for all. As we mentioned above, manufacturing complexity has always shaped our thinking. Dealing with this complexity freedom requires that we re-evaluate everything we know about design, manufacturing, and business. Because besides creating solutions for the sake of invention, giving everyone a 3D printer would theoretically allow them to create complex products and profit from them. Economic development initiatives could leverage the impact of 3D printing by giving people access to new methodologies and processes that could help them managing product complexity. Amazing examples can be found in explorations such as the Additivist Cookbook and the Fabricate International Conference Proceedings. Algorithms for topological optimization, structural analysis, parametric modeling, micro-structures, temperature responsive surfaces, and intersections with other manufacturing processes and disciplines are already being developed. In order to completely exploit the possibilities of 3D printing technologies, we need to design systems and interfaces that translate all these developments for everyone in contact with additive manufacturing. Maybe then, the democratization of 3D printing could reach its full potential as a liberating tool. Creators from every point of the society could make use of 3D printers to explore new ways of solving current problems by combining existing artefacts and ideas without the need for capital investment.
Maybe giving everyone a Replicator to have at home sounds like a great idea. Yet giving away the technology without helping users to understand how it really works sounds more like giving away canned food without giving people can openers. As many experts and journalists claim, 3D printing could start a 4th industrial revolution … as long as with those printers, we also teach people how to design with complexity.