3-D printers become more efficient, faster, and lower-priced with each passing day. But what will it mean when just about everyone has such a device? You might be surprised at the changes on the horizon!
What Can You Print?
Basically, this device prints with any material that is a polymer. Examples of polymers are polyester; most plastics, including ABS; metals; sugar; most batters and doughs; glass; engineered wood; cotton; wool; silk; bonded leather; and many others. This means that clothing, shoes, automobile parts, and many other items will be easily printable at home. Consumer-class 3-D printers can already print items measuring a maximum of 24 x 24 x 12 inches, and the size will continue to increase as costs decrease.
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It's easy to see how manufacturing will be transformed by this technology. Factories will become largely obsolete, except for very large items (such as automobiles), which will require advanced assembly. More items, such as clothing, furniture, shoes, building materials, and household furnishings, will be produced on a very local scale, thus eliminating the manufacture of items in advance of need, and reducing the waste of unwanted materials, particularly textiles.
The economies of scale will be replaced by the economies of localization and just-in-time. Fewer resources (such as trees and textile crops) will be required as waste will be reduced, and over time the space required for landfills should decline as well.
Shipping and Shopping
Because more items will be produced locally, the need for shipping items for sale will decrease, and this industry will most likely see a rapid decline. As for shopping, given the popularity of online shopping already, it is likely that the brick-and-mortar retail business will soon be a distant memory.
Indeed, I sometimes joke that in the future there will be only one retailer, Amazon, and it will sell only three items: e-books, files for printing objects, and spools of printing material.
With the technology to print just about anything at home, consumption will increase at first, and then decline, as people print what they need when they need it, at a much lower cost than retail or even wholesale items. With more money to spend, and formerly expensive items readily available, it is likely that poverty, especially in third-world countries, will decrease. The quality of life in third-world countries will increase, as people living in remote areas could pool their resources to buy a printer, and print what items they need communally.
Poverty and Crime
With the advent of cheap three-dimensional printing, poverty will decrease as people print what they need at home at reduced cost. Because poverty and crime are linked, both will see a decrease. In addition, property crimes should decrease because people will be able to print whatever they want instead of stealing it from someone else.
Art and Design
One industry that will be much more in demand is artists and designers. As consumers will no longer have to settle for what they can afford, they will be able to buy files to print what they like, and so the popularity and demand for artists and designers will increase dramatically. Artists and designers will generate passive income by selling their design files to consumers for printing at home.
Because almost all polymers can be recycled, the demand for recycling will increase, and with it the popularity and profit in recycling. Recycling centers must become larger and more productive in order to keep up with the increased demand for raw printing material.
It is already possible, with 3-D printing, to build a house in just 24 hours, mostly unattended, and on site. Many new construction (although not repair) jobs will become obsolete. However, landscape designers and architects will fare much better, as people will want uniquely-designed houses and commercial buildings.
Inventing physical objects will become ever cheaper, as inventors will be able to print their working prototypes at home, rather than investing thousands of dollars to have a prototype made. If their prototype doesn't work, all they have to do is melt it down and try again!
Printing working structures of the human body, specialized medical equipment, and even whole hospitals will be possible faster than anyone can truly comprehend. Already prosthetics are being designed that cost a fraction of what traditional prosthetics cost, and when you can print your own specialized medical equipment, the health conditions of third-world countries and ill-equipped rural hospitals will improve significantly.
Even dentistry will be revolutionized, as researchers are now printing bacteria-resistant teeth to replace missing ones.
When people are able to print their own solar cells at home, and the batteries, inverters, and other equipment to make them function efficiently, other forms of electricity, especially large-scale, will become less popular. After all, why buy a gasoline-powered car when you can print a customized Tesla-like model at home for less money, and power it with the solar cells you print yourself? Why buy electricity from a company when you can produce your own?
Law and Government
Many regulations and laws will have to change in the near future, as people start to print their own devices. Those who publish printing files may be responsible for damages suffered by people who bought their files; websites will arise to list complaints about particular files, just as class-action lawsuits are brought against manufacturers with defective products. However, many types of files will not be subject to legal action, because there will be no damages; materials will be recycled, and so there will be little but lost time and a few cents' worth of electricity as a lost investment.
The home decor and design industry will change dramatically, as people will be able to replicate designs from photographs. Imagine being able to have the house and furniture you always wanted, at a bargain-basement cost!
Computers and Software
Circuit boards can already be printed at home, and so while computer manufacturing may decline, computers will get faster and better-designed, because prototypes will be easier and less costly to manufacture. 3-D printers are already accurate to tenths of a micron, but will continue to improve and reduce in cost as the printer can print a copy of itself. 3-D scanners will also become cheaper and more accurate.
The real revolution, however, will be in software. Consumer demand will drive the development of easy-to-use 3-D design tools, and pattern-making software (for textiles, ceramics, etc.) will be more newbie-friendly.
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As schools acquire 3-D printing capabilities, the costs of education will decline. School science laboratories will be able to print their own glassware (and recycle broken glass), scientific equipment, and other materials. Repairs to buildings will also become cheaper as materials can be printed on site. It is to be hoped that the extra saved this way will be used to hire more competent teachers, and bring their salaries in line with other professions.
Another field that will drastically change will be space exploration. In the past, when a part failed, a new part would have to be sent. Missions required many months' planning, and many more months of travel, at great expense, simply to replace one failed part. Most space missions carried backups of parts in case of failure. Now, all that will be required is a 3-D printer and spools of material, thus lightening the payloads and making much longer missions possible.
It's manifestly impossible to foresee all the consequences that will result from this revolutionary technology. Three-dimensional home printing will soon change most people's lives in a way society is not prepared for, however, and so it's best to try to anticipate these changes as soon as possible, to make the transition easier.