The new cottage industry
IT has been said (and will be said many more times) that the 3D printing industry will revolutionise the means of production. This is perhaps a bit misdirected because 3D printing as compared to regular manufacturing is a similar comparison to what has happened with direct digital priting in the commercial prinitng sector.
In the printing world there was a very slow progress in the very early days, wood block printing was cumbersome and slow, corrections required a complete new block to be carved (or tricky correction inserts to be made) and the printing was manual. Then the demand was very limited as literacy was not that common except amongst the ruling classes (preachers, merchants, monarchs and associates). As the literacy increased and the effort required in printing came down mass production of printed matter became the norm, that famous fellow Gutenberg had a hand in that, this caused the continuous increase in the ‘replication’ rate of the written word until around the 1980′s. This was a turning point when small independent computers with attached printers appeared and individuals were able to publish for themselves, and not just reply on copied workd from the printing houses, the quality was poor and the cost was high to start with. How ever here in the 21st century we are seeing the turn around in the cost and quality. The latest sheet and web fed digital presses are approaching the speed and quality of the last generation of commercial litho presses. This has now allowed the industry to have variable data on each page making a custom book or an edition of just one possible for no extra cost. This should drive down the cost of books as warehousing should be reduced (and it will be reduced where the finishing is also automated) but special cover styles will have to be batch processed even in the print fun can be made smaller. The benefit of flexible publishing that was in the hands of the individuals has now been handed back to the industry. The ramifications of this are yet to be seen but it will become harder to justify ownership of printing means when an email can print and bind whatever one chooses.
With the 3D printing model similar things have happened but much later. Products were initially hand made by craftsmen, then by skilled workers in teams. Still later the work was simplified into manual batch production by semi-skilled workers. Then came the industrial revolution and machinery started to replace the human element and production volumes started to increase allowing for specialised machinery to manufacture articles at much lower costs for mass marketing, this was the product of capitalism, those who could afford to build a factory and keep it going were able to ‘print money’ just by having it running. The side effect here that the labour movement struggles with is that workers become impersonal and are merely parts in the greater production machine and the capital does not need to have any personal investment in their lives. All of a sudden computers came onto the scene and allowed for customised and automated production of variable parts, parts with differences and parts in small quantities, this made it harder even for the craftsmen to compete and they struggle to occupy the diminishing niches that cannot be fulfilled by automation. A further blow is felt when the additive manufacturing technologies start to emerge, companies can now have models, samples and patterns made that previously could only be done by craftsmen. The pool of skills in design is shrinking as less designers are required because they no longer have to craft their design and move onto the next job while a machine completes the fabrication. Now comes the current tide of individual 3D printing, it started a little earlier with the DIY CNC followers who would use subtractive automation at home or in small shops, it has kept the competition alive in that field. This is analogous to the desk top printer in the history of printing. It has given the individual designer back some of the power that has been missing for so long, he is able to produce to his needs without having to have the large amounts of capital to finance a factory. He can now with growing confidence manufacture parts that are usable as well as automate the model building of his designs and become competitive again.
That was the good news. Look forward a decade or two and we will be seeing the trend swing the other way. The capital sponsored industry will keep developing at a rate always ahead of the independant users and with more marketand volume will be able to stay in front technologically. The turning point will occur when it is cheaper to make a part in any volume than it is to mould the part using expensive moulds. At this point the industry will have got to the point of the full digital printing press we are at today where there is no quantity barrier for those that can afford the large expensive machinery. Competition would be high and costs would fall and the power in individual hands will be eroded again.
However there is a silver lining here. In the printing industry where the individual is trapped into desktop printers that will never approach the economy of commercial presses and is no longer unique in beeing able to print variable data the 3D printer user has an edge.
He can make his own 3D printer, while the author cannot make a better printer. He can improve his equipment, follow the latest trends, and even logarithmicly scale up production to outstrip the large capital industry if hehas a good product. This is the legacy that the RepRap idea has given to the individual, it gives the opotunity to be in control of the source of production like never before since the first automated machine was purchased.
So if you want to be part of the first true global revolution in individual independance you owe it to yourself to gain access to a 3D printer, you can always make parts for your own printer before it is too late.
The above thoughs are simplistic on many levels and gloss over a lot of big hurdles that need to be overcome but they do indicate the great reliance we have on centralised mass production and how we can limit this.
You too can join the 3D printing revolution.