Could 3-D Printing Change the Society and the City?
3-D printing combined with its increasing affordability could be an important element in accelerating the world away from the Post-Industrial to the Information Age.
3-D printing is the process of producing a physical object from a digital blue print or a scanned object. It is an additive process, not a subtractive process, as used in the machine tooling for a metal or plastic object. It relies on a mold that is inserted with a material (plastic, iron, copper etc.) to make a finished product.
Using a digital schematic, the 3-D printer builds a series of layers using material such as: plastic, glass, metal, ceramics or even cells to produce a single seamless product. One could think of this as similar to making a cake by putting down the different layers. This one machine might revolutionize manufacturing, the global economy and cities (Blua, 2013).
The cost may vary from as low as $1,000 to as high as $600,000 which is affordable to many businesses. What this realizes is that the companies and individuals can produce many parts with just a digital blueprint or scanned object, a 3-D machine and the appropriate material such as plastic, ceramics, steel and even cells. Produced objects could be as simple as making plastic figurines or mugs to even automobiles, houses or maybe a liver.
This sounds like the ‘replicator in Star Trek, doesn’t it?’ but it is not at this stage yet. It is not a Buck Rogers fantasy as presented in such magazines as Popular Science. 3-D printers are being manufactured and there are companies making objects with it. Surprisingly, 3-D printing was invented in the 1983 by Chuck Hall, but at this time, it was only in the experimental stage and CAD was in its infancy (Ziamou, 2013).
The first automobile to be made by a 3-D printer is now underway. This is being undertaken by RedEye. The process takes about 2,500 hours to make one car. The labor costs are limited to a few people. The cost for the prototype was $50,000. They can also make parts that are no longer available for vintage or older cars. There are claims that this new car because of its weight will travel from San Francisco to New York on 10 gallons of pure ethanol (George, 2013).
Based on geographic data or Computer Aided Design (CAD) data, 3 D printers can also create 3D models of entire cities or specific sites in the present or future, assisting city management/planning and improving public participation (Jaffee, 2013).
There are several trials underway to make houses from 3 D printers. Part of the house can be printed off-site in about a week and then assembled in one day. Various materials such as plastic bottles or even starch can be used to build the components of a house. (Dorrier, 2013).
The use of recycled materials and labor reduction costs could significantly reduce the price of housing. Also, it saves energy and wisely uses natural resources.
As illustrated in the above examples, the pace that 3 D printing is developing is phenomenal. The proliferation of 3 D printing as a major element of the manufacturing of all goods may not be a twenty or thirty year horizon, but ten years or less.
3-D printing itself will not bring about a new industrial revolution, but it will be one more block in the accelerating Information Age revolution; combined with a tremendously faster Internet which will fully realize the potential of cloud computing, and intelligent robots.
If I am ‘reading the tea leaves’ correctly manufacturing will soon be changed forever. The result will be incredible efficiency in the production of goods that are cheaper, less capital and labor intensive. Added to this will be lessened energy consumption of petroleum products because of decreased transportation costs, and decreased extraction of non-renewable material resources such as iron, copper etc. When combined with greater efficiency in alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal, which equipment could also be made with 3 D printers, the globe could be on its way to a sustainable future.
The reports of the speed and promise of the blinding light of 3-D printing combined with the development of technology which appears to be accelerating at a mind numbing pace, can send the mind reeling at its promise. But, the consequences are often being overlooked in this flurry of information ‘spun’ by numerous sources. Take a ‘journey down Google lane’ and you will see a plethora of articles on 3 D printing promoting its attributes, but with no substantial reflective comments.
All this hype has contributed to the utopian visioning of an information city or “informational city ” (Castells, 1996), (McAdams, 2008). But, due to this rapid development of technology, the ‘digital divide’ could become much more dramatic with this shift in the efficiency of automation and productivity. The need for labor could be only for a relatively few who have technological skills. The need for low-skilled labor would be exclusively in service jobs. There have been dramatic advances in creating sizable middle class populations in cities in high middle income countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, India and China; with still vast sectors of their population living in poverty. This progress could be undone by manufacturing needing less labor.
There could be a major disruption in the global economy with this new type of technology if the plutocracy continues to amass fortunes and drain the money from increases in productivity. The prosperity will only be limited to the very rich and corporations. Who will buy the goods if technology creates a disproportional amount of prosperity for one group and the remainder gets a small fraction or no portion of it.
Manuel Castells states that an information city is creating a dual city or :
“An urban system socially and spatially polarized between high value-making groups and functions on the one hand and devalued social groups and downgraded spaces on the other hand. This polarization induces increasing integration of the social and spatial core of the urban system, at the same time that it fragments devalued spaces and groups, and threatens them with social irrelevance (Castells, 1996).”
At the present moment, the world politics are dominated by international plutocrats who are by their business practices, and dominance in global financial and political institutions are significantly reducing the the middle class in developed world and creating a permanent worldwide population living at poverty level. There is no doubt that further improvements in technology without means to redistribute the prosperity will result in accelerating income disparities in both developed and developing countries.
Viewed from another angle, the 3-D printer is could be seen as the impetus of start-up companies or even individuals doing small scale manufacturing. This could be an affront for large multinational companies which are based on economy of scale, cheap labor and dependent upon an international supply chain. This also could open an alternative economy of worker-owned companies. There could be a major battle over patents, copyrights etc., as corporations struggle to maintain their ‘over-the top’ profits.
Emerging technologies, such as the 3-D printer is rapidly changing all aspects of culture, the economy, speed of globalization and politics. There is ample evidence that recently adopted technology has already made permanent changes to all aspects of how our present society functions (i.e., computers, jet airplanes, advanced telecommunications, including internet).
Major shifts in the history of mankind can be strongly related to changes in technology (i.e., use of refining of bronze, copper, iron, the plow, the gun; steam engine; electricity, the telephone, the automobile, etc.). The difference, between nations that have technology greater than other nations, has been the cause of those civilizations ceasing to exist (i.e., Aztecs, Incans etc.).
The ruins of those that misused technology to cause social turmoil at the hands of elitist governments and environmental degradation are also present (i.e. Mayans, Easter Island etc.). This is explained in detail by Jared Diamond in his books Guns, Germs and Steel (2005) and Collapse (2011 ).
However, the future does not have to continue to cause with environmental damage, burgeoning cities in the developed world with large areas of poverty, increased income inequality, and depletion of natural resources with the plutocracy fighting to drain the global economy. Technology, such as the 3 D printer can be used to increase the wealth of the entire global community.
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