A new Third Industrial Revolution manufacturing model has seized the public stage and is growing exponentially. Hundreds of companies are now producing physical products the way software produces information in the form of video, audio, and text. It’s called 3D printing.
_x005F_x000D_ Printers are already producing products from jewelry and airplane parts to human prostheses. And cheap printers are being purchased by hobbyists interested in printing out their own parts and products. The consumer is beginning to give way to the prosumer as increasing numbers of people become both the producer and consumer of their own products. Three-dimensional printing differs from conventional centralized manufacturing in several important ways.
_x005F_x000D_ First, there is little human involvement aside from creating the software. The software does all the work, which is why it’s more appropriate to think of the process as “infofacture” rather than “manufacture.”
_x005F_x000D_ Second, the early practitioners of 3D printing have made strides to ensure that the software used remains open source, allowing prosumers to share new ideas with one another do-it-yourself hobbyist networks. The open design concept conceives of the production of goods as a dynamic process in which thousands – even millions – of players learn from one another by making things together. _x005F_x000D_ Third, the production process is organized completely different than the traditional manufacturing process. 3D printing is additive infofacturing, which uses one-tenth of the material of subtractive manufacturing, giving the 3D printer a substantial leg up in efficiency.
_x005F_x000D_ Fourth, 3D printers can print their own spare parts without having to invest in expensive retooling and the time delays that go with it.
_x005F_x000D_ Fifth, the 3D printing movement is deeply committed to sustainable production and its emphasis is on durability and recyclability and using nonpolluting materials.
_x005F_x000D_ Sixth, 3D printers can set up shop and connect anywhere there is a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) infrastructure and enjoy thermodynamic efficiencies far beyond those of centralized factories, with productivity gains.
_x005F_x000D_ Finally, plugging into an IoT infrastructure (internet of things) at the local level gives the small infofacturers one final, critical advantage over the verticality integrated, centralized of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: they can power their vehicles with renewable energy whose marginal cost is nearly free, significantly reducing their logistics costs along the supply chain and in the delivery of their finished products to users. _x005F_x000D_
The ability to produce, market, and distribute physical goods anywhere there is an IoT infrastructure to plug into is going to dramatically affect the spatial organization of society. Three-dimensional printing is both local and global; it is also highly mobile, allowing infofacturers to be anywhere and quickly move to wherever there is an IoT infrastructure to connect to. More and more prosumers will make and use simple products at home. Small- and medium-sized 3D businesses, infofacturing more sophisticated products, will likely cluster in local technology parks to establish an optimum lateral scale. Homes and workplaces will no longer be separated by lengthy commutes. Smaller urban centers of 150,000 to 250,000 people, surrounded by a rewilding of green space, might slowly replace dense urban cores and suburban sprawl in a more distributed and collaborative economic era.
_x005F_x000D_ Three-dimensional printing, like so many inventions, was inspired by science-fiction writers. A generation of geeks sat enthralled in front of their TV screens, watching episodes of Star Trek. In long journeys through the universe, the crew needed to be able to repair and replace parts of the spaceship and keep stocked with everything from machine parts to pharmaceutical products. The replicator was programmed to rearrange subatomic particles that are ubiquitous in the universe into objects, including food and water.
_x005F_x000D_ The 3D printing revolution began in the 1980s. The early printers were very expensive and used primarily to create prototypes, then this innovation moved to customizing products when computer hackers began to migrate into the field. The hackers immediately realized the potential of conceiving of “atoms as the new bits.” These pioneers envisioned bringing the open-source format from the IT and computing arena into the production of “things.” Open-source hardware became the rallying cry of a disparate group of inventors and enthusiasts loosely identifying themselves as part of the Makers Movement. The players collaborated with one another on the Internet exchanging innovative ideas and learning from each other as they advanced the 3D printing process. _x005F_x000D_ Open-source 3D printing reached a new phase when Adrian Bowyer and a team at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom invented the RepRap, the first open-source 3D printer that could be made with readily available tools and that could replicate itself – that is, it was a machine that could make its own parts. The RepRap can already fabricate 48 percent of its own components and is on its way to becoming a totally self-replicating machine.
Open-source 3D printing reached a new phase when Adrian Bowyer and a team at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom invented the RepRap, the first open-source 3D printer that could be made with readily available tools and that could replicate itself – that is, it was a machine that could make its own parts. The RepRap can already fabricate 48 percent of its own components and is on its way to becoming a totally self-replicating machine.
_x005F_x000D_ The Makers Movement took a big step toward the democratization of digitally produced things with the introduction of the Fab Lab in 2005. The Fab Lab, a fabrication laboratory, is the brainchild of the MIT physicist and professor Neil Gershenfeld. The idea came out of a popular course at MIT called “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”
_x005F_x000D_ The Fab Lab is “the people’s R&D laboratory” of the Third Industrial Revolution. It takes R&D and new innovations out of the elite laboratories of world-class universities and global companies and distributes it to neighborhoods and communities where it becomes a collaborative pursuit and a powerful expression of peer-to-peer lateral power at work.
_x005F_x000D_ Making 3D printing a truly local, self-sufficient process requires that the feedstock used to create the filament is abundant and locally available._x005F_x000D_ Filabot is a nifty new device the size of a shoe box that grinds and melts old household items made out of plastic: buckets, DVDs, bottles, water pipes, sunglasses, milk jugs, and the like. The ground plastic is then fed into a hopper and into a barrel where it is melted down by a heating coil. The molten plastic then travels through nozzles and is sent through sizing rollers to create plastic filaments which are stored on a spool for painting.
_x005F_x000D_ A Dutch student, Dirk Vander Kooij, reprogrammed an industrial robot to print customized furniture in a continuous line using plastic material from old refrigerators. The robot can print out a chair in multiple colors and designs in less than three hours. His 3D printer can turn out 4.000 customized chairs a year.
_x005F_x000D_ If infofacturers are going to print furniture, why not print the building the furniture will be housed in? Engineers, architects, and designers are scrambling to bring 3D-printed buildings to market. While the technology is still in the R&D stage, it is already clear that 3D printing of buildings will reinvent construction in the coming decades.
_x005F_x000D_ Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis is a professor of industrial and systems engineering and director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California. With support and financing from the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Khoshnevis is experimenting with a 3D printing process called “contour crafting” to print buildings. He has created a form-free composite-fiber concrete that can be extruded and that is strong enough to allow a printed wall to support itself during construction. _x005F_x000D_ _x005F_x000D_
Khoshnevis is not alone. The MIT research lab is using 3D printing to explore ways to create the frame of a house in one day with virtually no human labor. That same frame would take an entire construction crew a month to put up.
_x005F_x000D_ Dini and Foster + Partners, one of the world’s largest architectural firms, have teamed up with the European Space Agency to explore the possibility of using 3D printing to construct a permanent base on the moon. The buildings would be printed using lunar soil as the feedstock. The goal is to construct lunar habitats with locally sustainable materials found on the moon in order to avoid the logistical cost of shipping in materials from Earth. _x005F_x000D_
While the 3D printing of buildings is in the very early stages of development, it is projected to grow exponentially in the coming two decades as the production process becomes increasingly efficient and cheaper. Unlike conventional construction techniques, where the cost of designing architectural blueprints is high, construction materials are expensive, labor costs are steep, and the time necessary to erect the structures is lengthy, 3D printing is not affected by these factors.
_x005F_x000D_ Whether on the moon or here on Earth, human beings will need transport to get around. The first 3D-printed automobile, the Urbee, is already being field tested. The Urbee was developed by KOR EcoLogic, a company based in Winnipeg, Canada. The automobile is a two-passenger hybrid-electric vehicle, which is designed to run on solar and wind power that can be harvested in a one-car garage each day. The car can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. If long driving distances are necessary, the user can switch over to the car’s ethanol-powered backup engine. Granted, the Urbee is just the first working prototype of the new TIR-era automobile, but like the introduction of Henry Ford’s first mass-produced, gas-powered internal-combustion engine automobile, the nature of the vehicle’s construction and power source is highly suggestive of the kind of future it portends for the economy and society.
_x005F_x000D_ A 3D-printed automobile is produced with a very different logic. The automobile can be made from nearly free feedstock available locally, eliminating the high cost of rare materials and the costs of shipping them to the factory and storing them on-site. Most of the parts in the car are made with 3D-printed plastic, with the exception of the base chassis and engine. The rest of the car is produced in layers, which are “added” one onto another in a continuous flow rather than being assembled together from individual parts, meaning less material, less time, and less labor are used. A six-foot-high 3D printer poured out Urbee’s shell in only ten pieces, with no wasted material.