Digital fabricators: what effect on the world?

Digital fabricators (“fabbers”) are devices that can take a digital model of an object and “print” it as a real-world object – like the replicators in Star Trek.

Current fabbers just produce simple plastic prototypes but they are rapidly becoming cheaper, more precise and can print using more materials.

But what kind of world will it be, if, say, you could buy a fabber for $400 and print pretty much any plastic device or circuit board for just a few cents worth of materials each time?
How will it affect small businesses and manufacturing?
How will it affect patents – will manufacturers try to DRM it?
What about if it eventually became possible to print weapons?

I’m supposed to open with my own opinion first, but it’s mind-boggling to me.

In the short term I can see attempts to limit what the machines can fabricate, as well as bulk manufacturers moving towards whatever materials that home fabricators could not use. For a long time people may turn their noses up at cheap, home-made “imitations” versus the “real” thing.
In the long term, beats me…

I suspect it won’t be long before digital piracy is extended to physical things. The code for any given thing you want a fabber to print is just that-- code-- and so can be shared over existing peer-to-peer networks, assuming the files aren’t larger than a few gigabytes. What effect that will have will remain to be seen, I guess; the anarchic nature of the internet will make it more and more difficult to hold existing intellectual property laws the way they are.

Patents could still exist, but I think any attempts at DRM would fail utterly. It would be like trying to develop DRM for the *.bmp format. At some point, you have to recognise that you’re converting your plans into a three-dimensional array of dots and sending it to your 3d printer. Intercept that raw data, and you’ve got your plans, DRM free.

Would it be harder to impose security on this type of data than on any other?

To be sure, a 3D object can be scanned and its precise shape thus known. But the internal details (e.g. size, orientation and tension of internal carbon fibers that provide much of the strength) would be hard to reverse engineer.

Complex combined-material products aren’t going to be so easily turned out, not on a $400 machine or with penny materials.

I don’t see how “home” manufacturing of small, cheap, simple plastic objects will make a very significant difference in practice. Those kind of things can be bought cheaply in bulk as it is; what’s the real sea change in buying the raw materials and stamping them out yourself? Some minor efficiencies may be gained, sure, but it won’t turn the world upside down.

Not if DRM confirming firmware is incorporated into the fabber.

Anything worth copying is already being copied somewhere in China. Even whole cars are stripped, scanned, and reproduced there. Distribution is cheap enough that I don’t think home-fabbing is going to make an appreciable change in the availability of knock-off merchandise in the next 20 years. Not with home-fabs as expensive and limited as they are.

We may get to that point someday, where home-fabs are essentially Star Trek replicators, but I don’t think it’s an immediate concern for intellectual property.

The promise of home-fabbing isn’t so much access to cloned 3D objects, but rather (according to the book I read called, I think, “Fab”) that unique items can be distributed. Much the same way that internet music distribution opened the doors for a lot of very small independent artists, so too will home fabbing open the door for small independent designers/inventors. If you invent something with a target market of 20 people, you’d have to charge a fortune for the item in order to recoup the production and distribution costs. With home-fabbing, you can just sell the plans and make 20 people happy, and maybe make a little money.

Meanwhile, China is still going to be cranking out iPad knockoffs for the masses.

I’ll never be able to print out a functional half-horse motor for my table saw, but it’d be worth something to be able to go to the shop across town and have them print up a sturdy new yoke for my Dobsonian telescope, to replace the one that cracked when it slipped off the tailgate of my truck.
There are a lot of ‘few off and ridiculously expensive’ or ‘impossible to replace since the factory closed down in the eighties’ type items in the world that 3D printer technology could supply.

Queue me up an orbital nuke!!

Not sure about other weapons though. You’re pretty much looking at things that don’t have too many different materials or moving parts. Firearms seem unlikely in the near future, and printing a shiv seems a little overkill.:stuck_out_tongue:

A broadsword however…

I don’t think this is the best way to look at it. In this case, you’re using how the world works today and speeding up such a world with a little bit with home-based efficiency. It doesn’t seem all that different with that perspective.

I think it’s better to look at the proposed cheap home-based 3D fabricator in the same way as the printing press or computers.

Before the printing press, you had monks copying manuscripts by hand. It was tedious and took forever. If we see the printing press as simply a faster version of manual re-writing, it doesn’t seem like something that would change the world. However, something unexpected changes when more countries and printers have a press. The velocity of ideas changes. The velocity of creating new ideas also changes. It has effects on weakening the church. Arguably, the printing press and widespread literacy allows democracies to overthrow monarchs.

When the early computer ENIAC was built, nobody at home had computation technology. A ENIAC scientist could reasonaby say that this computer excels at arithmetic and calculating ballistics. If someone asks what the future world would look like if everyone had an “ENIAC” at home, he might just think that more people would then calculate ballistics faster! It turns out that the unexpected uses of computers at home is driving all sorts of unforseen changes. Video games (entertainment), research (web google), banking (online banking), communication (email instead of postal mail), romance (computer matching), journalism (blogging) etc.

The common theme is some type of unforseen “network effect” from the device. We should expect some kind of emergent property that happens only because everybody has a cheap 3D printer. Right now, the turnaround time from blueprint to plastic injection-molded prototype is about 1 - 2 weeks. One would also have to have expertise in the 3D modeling software to upload to the manufacturing contractor. However, if the 3D modeling and fabrication can happen in someone’s average home with a turnaround of 1 hour – a new invention that nobody would have predicted will be created. We can’t predict it because we are biased to seeing the world the way it looks today. If 50+% of the homes have digital fabs, maybe we’d have amazing new technologies of artificial limbs, or breakthrough devices for colonizing Mars. We just can’t predict what the hive mind can do until everyone has the device. It allows the exchanging of ideas (the ideas of the 3D variety) to become much cheaper.

At larger scales there’s no “penny materials” anyway. The cost of materials for most products is significant.

That said, knowing what I know about metal fabrication we are a long, long, long way from economical digital fabbing of anything complex made of steel, aluminum, or the like.

When the fabricators can make food out of not-food, that will change the world.

Heck, it may dramatically extend the lives of older products which have been squirreled away for want of spare parts. Got an old toolbox with a broken clasp, one in otherwise good shape that you can’t bring yourself to throw away? Scan the other clasp, make a duplicate, put it on, put the toolbox back into use. Jay Leno, in a 2009 column for Popular Mechanics, wrote about vintage cars needing spare parts and how 3D printing could put them back into service.

Anyone who’s bought power tools (or vacuum cleaners, or electric fans, or any number of simple electrical appliances) knows how annoying it is when the tool becomes useless because some small crappy plastic part broke. A home 3D printer, or access to one, means spare parts are always close at hand.

It’s been remarked that complex objects will be difficult to print out on a home fabricator. One way around this difficulty would be to print the parts separately and then assemble them. Things could be designed so that they consist of printable parts that can be snapped together by hand.

Research is being done on using carbon as a conductor, as a semiconductor, and even as a display. Maybe it will be possible one day to build electronic devices that consist entirely, or mostly, of a handful of cheap common materials.

So maybe someday we’ll be able to print out the parts for a cellphone and then snap them together.

Maybe when a device wears out you’ll be able to dump it in a hopper and replenish your supply of raw materials.

ETA: Open source objects!

Sometimes the assembly’s the hard part.

Consider a steel fabrication. You have three basic steps leaving out stuff like painting)

  1. The manufcature of the steel,
  2. Forming the steel, and
  3. Assembly of the steel, which usually means welding.

Much of the time and cost - most, if it’s reasonably complex - of something made of steel is the welding.

There’s always a sort of underlying assumption in threads like that that the things to be made are electronic devices like iPods; that seems to be your assumption, not that I’m trying to pick on you, but if you read the thread it does seem to be a recurring assumption, and that always seems to be the way it is in online threads. When people talk about manufacturing, it seems, they only want to talk about the manufacturing of electronic doodads.

But of course most things that are manufactured aren’t electronic doodads, and a lot of them are big things made of metal, where the manner in which the things are assembled is really the most important part of it. If you’re assembling a big pressure vessel, the way it’s put together is the critical issue; the welds have to be X-rayed, in fact.

Now, of course, I’m just being picky. In truth, if we had really super duper whiz-bang replicators, the result would be the same as such things always are - quite a lot of creative destruction. Some people would lose their jobs, and they’d demand the government did something about it, just as back in the 1970s people were, absolutely seriously, demand the government do something about robots. But in the long term the gain in material wealth would be enormous.


To be fair, I steered the discussion towards electronic doodads in the OP.

It was because I didn’t know how far-fetched the idea of printing metal devices was.

Whereas I’m sure we’ll eventually be able to home-print printed circuit boards.
And it seems feasible to me that sprayable substitutes for the metals used within electronic devices may be found, since in this case it is often conductivity that is the key property, not tensile strength.

Maybe I shouldn’t have used a cellphone as the example, but it’s what came to mind. I didn’t intend the focus to be on electronics.

One of my main points was that by finding ways to use easy to work with materials in new ways we can “print” all kinds of things. To use your example, we could replace steel with carbon nanotube based materials. Obviously people wouldn’t be printing large pressure vessels at home, but smaller objects that are traditionally made of metal could be made of forms of carbon instead.

Referring again to your example, a pressure vessel isn’t necessarily all that complex and it may be that an industrial sized fabricator could print it in one piece, perhaps by spraying the material on some sort of mold that could afterward be collapsed or melted and then removed. Of course there would be various plumbing connections and valves that would likely have to be attached in some manner after fabrication.

Popular Mechanics had a Jay Leno’s Garage article featuring the digital fabricator he has in his shop. He uses it to fabricate hard-to-find parts or tools. I can see these fabricators filling this niche, as well as the rapid prototyping. I can see airports possibly investing in them to be able to fabricate parts for planes because when something fails on a plane it creates a situation called an AOG(aircraft on ground) which is tremendously expensive. A lot of these parts, if they can get it to “print” to spec, are relatively simple, nuts, bolts, hoses, hose clamps, retaining clips, etc. Printing to spec is the hard part here, because if these machines mis-fabricate a retaining clip for an airplane, that could spell disaster. There are normally VERY tight controls on the parts allowed to be used for planes. Everything from FAA certified manufacturers, and a proven chain of control all the way from factory to installation.

That having been said, the ability to on-site fabricate such a large variety of the necessary parts would be a hundred billion dollar business, at least. If the fabricators get that good, then it could be the next big thing in shops that service equipment with these kinds of specialty parts.


Oh my! When can I have mine?

You know that little knob on your old oven, that lets you set the timer, but it broke years ago? I bet I can find the plans for it online, and print my own replacement, rather than having to order one.

How about the plastic snap that hold the collection bag onto my shop vac? The casing around my fan motor, which is cracked?

Maybe I want a serving plate for Halloween, shaped like a brain. My computer monitor is 3" below where the ideal height would be, so it’s sitting on a phone book. I could print a stand with the ideal size.

Miniture painting would take on a whole new life. Instead of being the home of geeks that play Dungeons and Dragons (wave hi to all my friends), you could put your grandchild’s face on a predesigned angel figurine, and paint it to match your Christmas decorations. Did the dog eat the manger from your nativity scene? Print and paint another.

I’d guess that printing an item would not be able to get down to traditional bulk manufacturing prices, but for the one-off or specialty use, the market would be huge.

I happily look forward to a world where stores checkout lanes aren’t full of keychains with cuties fobs, because you can go home and print what you REALLY want.

Instead, the internet will be full of people selling pre-made or customizable patterns.
Maybe it will be on the Apple Itunes model, where you can buy them cheap, but there isn’t a good way to move apps/patterns to additional machines.