3D printers have been getting more attention in the mainstream media in the past few months. 3D printers were mentioned in a story about tech trends on National Public Radio today, and my father showed me a newsletter from a mutual fund company with a short article about 3D printing. You know that something is hitting the mainstream when retired people learn about it. Of course, 3D printing is old news to those of us in the Maker community. We know that just because consumers can buy 3D printers for their homes doesn’t mean that they should. Today’s 3D printers aren’t exactly consumer products, and someone who believes the hype and spends a couple thousand dollars without doing a lot of research is probably going to be disappointed. The technology is not at the point where you can print objects that look as good or work as well as similar items you can buy at the store. Likewise, designing your own custom objects sounds good until you discover the price (and learning curve) of 3D design software.
Focusing on 3D printers risks missing a broader trend in the democratization of manufacturing. From the late 1970′s to the early 1990′s, computing power became affordable to the masses. From the late 1990′s to the present, the Internet has given the common man access to an amount of information that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. These trends democratized the means of production for media, music, video, and information technology. Over the past few years, the barriers to entry for manufacturing are becoming lower at a rapid pace. Now you can print goods in your home, or send your design out for rapid prototyping, at an affordable price. For example, I recently spent $25 to buy a mount for my smartphone through Kickstarter. The business that is developing this item consists of one man with a 3D CAD program. The prototypes were fabricated using the Ponoko 3D printing service and the production tooling will only require an up-front investment of $18,000.
Karl Marx developed communism because he perceived that the common man was oppressed by the few wealthy people who owned the means of production. Today, the common man doesn’t need to own the means of production because he can make use of them at an affordable price. Our concept of work is being transformed in a post-industrial revolution, and no one describes it better than Seth Godin. If you haven’t read any of his books, Linchpin is a good place to start. We’re living in an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2013 will bring!