Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Stupid Hype about 3-D Printing

The sort of people who always think the latest technology is going to transform the world all agog over 3-D printing. Somehow it is going to transform our economies, empower individuals, undermine political authority (just like the internet did), and even change how we experience art. Apparently sane people say rave about print at home sculptures and say things like,
It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.
Like, wow. Now we can make plastic junk in our own homes via an expensive, painfully slow, energy inefficient process!

Not that 3-D printing isn't cool, but in our world we are already really, really good at manufacturing things quickly and cheaply. Improvements in manufacturing plastic or metal parts are just not what our world needs. More junk, I think, imagining houses full of gargoyle figurines.

But we can 3-D print guns! So? The world is awash in guns and buying one on the black market is about as hard as buying pot.

We can 3-D print food from powdered carbohydrates! Yum.

It will bring manufacturing back to the US! Why? All the factors that make manufacturing cheaper in China still apply to 3-D printing.

We can 3-D print metal parts from powdered alloys! I suppose this might be useful for, say, making parts for antique cars, but the cost is several dozen times that for smelting and molding.

We can scan any object and make a plastic copy of it! How many objects are there in the world that really need to be duplicated? Like that gargoyle figurine in the picture, which was copied in this way. Is the existence of a second identical gargoyle figurine going to transform anything?

We can 3-D print organs! No, we can 3-D print fake organs, and when it comes to real ones my money is still on using DNA manipulation to get nature to grow them for us.

We can 3-D print cells! Well, not yet, but people say we will soon. To which I answer, why would we want to make one from scratch when we could reprogram some organism's DNA and let it make the cell for us?

I probably shouldn't be too flip, because 3-D printing has its niche and it is being used in many manufacturing enterprises. It will get better. So it is important. But it is important in the way that, say, the continuous casting process for steel or the roller mill for flour is, a different way of doing something we are already very good at. It will not transform your life or mine.


pootrsox said...

At least 10 years ago, a good friend of mine worked for a California company that wrote software for 3-D printing machines. I have a "prototype" small-sized adjustable wrench and a medieval tower with a double helix going up inside it.

What's the big deal, indeed-- it's simply commercialism at work. Now the machines are available to the retail market, and consumers need to be hyped to lay out the big bucks.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree this is 99% hype. Maybe for protyping in a shop, maybe for the occasional one-off item. At home, scanning items and printing - nah,quite the dream there.