This week I was invited to participate in ‘3D printing: Four Scenarios for 2030’ a future facing scenario planning workshop considering the development of 3D printing and related social and economic implications. This was an ESRC-funded collaboration between Lancaster University (CeMoRe) and University of the West of England (CTS).
Human geographers, supply chain managers, materials scientists, assistive technology developers, makers, coders, hackers, product and fashion designers, economists and educationalists were among those attending which opened the debate in interesting ways.
After collectively developing an extensive timeline documenting trends in manufacturing, design, retail and supply chain since 1900,( some of which you’ll be able to see in this slideshare) four scenarios for the state of 3D printing in 2030 were presented. These scenarios where based on degrees of corporat-ization and engagement with 3D printing. They looked something like this: (Quoted directly)
Scenario 1: Desktop Factories in the Home
‘The technical possibilities of fabrication in the home using desktop 3D printers, coupled with the trend for personal computer ownership and proficiency with simplified design software alongside extensive online file-sharing and filetrading networks, significantly disrupted global systems of production, distribution and retailing. Many factories in the global south closed or downsized and countries that depended on manufacturing shifted to promoting design innovation, Intellectual Property (IP) and knowledge through education and skills (typically science and technologies and engineering). Yet regardless of these shifts in production, many supply chain and distribution networks remained intact and have even been consolidated due to rapid growth in demand for powders and other feedstocks for ‘printers’. The benefits of print-to-demand technologies in the home as well as many designs procured from the Internet has led to a new social practices linked to hygiene, convenience and normality which all require regular supplies of printer feedstocks. As well, progress has been made in recycling technologies spurred by sustainability and environmental concerns that operate alongside desktop printers in the home or in the local community (akin to recycled waste collection depots), to produce feedstocks from many locally sourced and recycled materials and products and encouraging significant reuse.’
This presents as a somewhat Gershenfeld, Lipson-ian approach to 2030, an era of desktop fabrication, a democratised, open-source, free-sharing system where materials costs are the new primary outlay. This example was cited as an example of low-corporatisation which I disagree with on some vague level, in much the same way as how 2d printers are currently sold as loss leaders I suspect 3D printers may be sold as loss leaders by those with stock in materials production or in attaching a new form of branding and value to the goods produced. Fedex, Amazon, Tesco and Ikeas of the world will surely hop on board with this new distribution mechanism (if capabilities improve). This type of future requires breaking with convention, new retail models, new product design and category. With desktop fabrication physical spam will be a thing and rule 34 will be evidenced yet again (Stross). This is a future that I welcome with a fair degree of amusement but also interest. I suspect that we’ll see more of this digital to physical production, transmedia and on-demand delivery.
Scenario 2. Localized Manufacture
‘Trends in personal computer ownership and proficiency, coupled with the possibilities of digital materialization, generated a new industry of local print ‘shops’ and online retailing that cater to consumers, 3D printing hobbyists, small businesses and inventors. While aesthetic and economic concerns limited 3D printing in the home, there has been a blossoming of high-street retail bureaus or ‘print shops’ to cater for the trend in use of online networks of 3D designs organized through largescale corporate databases developed by suppliers such as Google or Amazon. As well, high street chains and corporations used local manufacturing to create outlets to compensate and make more efficient ‘warehouse’ storage, print-on-demand, and the central distribution of products. Global manufacturing and distribution has grown from these new business opportunities with emerging supply chains of material feedstocks due to localized manufacturing on a vast scale. Companies in the global north consolidated their control and production of IP, innovating designs and techniques that make 3D printing viable for business with localized supply chains and seeing increasing gains in investments in education and talent. Much manufacturing ‘returned’ to the global north and this has reduced the large-scale transport of objects from the global south.’
Localised 3D printing is already here, you just don’t see it if you aren’t specifically looking for it. Bureaus and fab labs exist in possibly all of the major cities of most of the world, Ponoko and Shapeways will ship to you if you don’t have one near you. While the capabilities are still somewhat limited. Possibilities of high value manufacture and reshoring is exciting politicians and manufacturing pundits of the world currently. The one element that is lacking in some areas is consideration of the commercial and customer facing approach with some bureaus still working in a predominantly B2B capacity but this is changing and will continue to do so as capabilities and visibility of 3D printing develop.
Scenario 3. Community Craft
Growing up in a knowledge economy with easy access to new technology has meant that community groups championing 3D printing innovated and experimented through informal networks based around local innovation. While most consumers lack the interest, time, skill and capital to use 3D printing in the home, many community ‘craft’ centres emerged run by key individuals hoping to spur interest in open source and democratic ‘wealth without money’ through technology and sharing of social practices. While a growing use of 3D printing in schools and universities made the technology more visible, most people continue to procure consumer items in the traditional way either through online purchasing and delivery from distant manufacturing centres or through retail high-street stores. The widespread use of open-source and self-replicating machines, as well as easy access to community printers, meant that business print-shops and suppliers have little market success. Widespread piracy alongside open source networks of design files and an ‘Internet of things’ encourages people to participate in designing and crafting 3D products that are then shared with many people who print customized objects through community or shared printing stations or even on self-replicated machines and parts distributed at little cost to the owner and self-assembled through support networks and community learning.’
This was pitched as a low 3D printing engagement and situated around continued growth of community craft. I don’t have so much to say about this scenario, it has always and will always exist. Traditional market forces complicate this set-up and alternative economies are called for, as such open-source is popular, and evidence of disregard of IP and a file sharing culture is cited. As with most ‘industries’ that have under gone digitisation and convergence with new distribution or manufacturing technologies (such as the music and film industries) this culture is seemingly inevitable. There is however no return to the ivory towers and large multi-nationals, instead embracing a new culture, a new economic system is vital and I wonder if the Kickstarter-esq, local, distributed, democratic and merit-based approach will continue as distributed capitalism.
Scenario 4. Only Prototyping
‘Contrary to high expectations at the beginning of the 21st century, 3D printing failed to develop alongside the growing trend towards people shopping online. Although many types of 3D printers were developed, hardly any made a successful market entry, with the products being of too low quality or too expensive. Many computer-aided additive manufacturing technologies and products available to consumers were judged too costly, of inadequate material strength, of irregular texture or finish, not aesthetically or economically suitable for the home, too difficult to use, or did not meet the very varied personal needs and demands of ‘choosy’ consumers. As a result, most people continued to depend upon online and traditional retailers for the purchases of goods that were manufactured in ‘factories’ often very distant from these consumers. Those with contact with 3D printers or access to online 3D printing shops used them for rapid prototyping or for hobbies. Rapid prototyping remained the main use of 3D printing technologies and this had little impact upon transport or travel patterns.’
Esh, someone had to upset the prototype kids. This scenario was developed as a reponse to a latent concern that 3D printing won’t develop significantly in terms of capabilities and cost and will therefore be relegated to prototyping in the longer term. I think we are beginning to move past this concern and I’ll point to Makie Lab, Nervous Systems, Unto this Last and Tatty Devine as evidence of organisations using ‘rapid manufacturing technologies’ in a customer facing and commercial capacity. There is of course a conversation to be had around the narrative surrounding rapid manufacture output which is often embodied with a particular aesthetic. In much the same way that consumers pay more for green goods, the alternative value of this manufacturing approach will likely form part of the consumer acceptance process.
While these are scenarios developed solely as provocations for discussion, the development of 3D printing depends on economic, social and business factors over the next few years. Investment trends have been interesting to observe over the past year, coupled with the hype cycle suggestion that 3D printing is due some time in the trough of disillusionment. More to come.