Recently, a couple of things happened that made me realize this was probably the last Christmas season without 3D printed gifts under the tree. First, the topic of 3D printing came up twice at a holiday party in two separate conversations of non-techies—quite surprising. When they heard what my job is, it was one of the first things that came to mind for them. Second, personal fabrication is moving from making for your own gratification to selling fabricated items to others, Web style via an Etsy of sorts for 3D printing—Ponoko—which embraced the holiday spirit wholly, selling fabbed ornaments and such to the geek giver.
I pose the Christmas benchmark because 3D printing is now officially hovering in the Uncertain Valley of new technologies, sitting somewhere between Wired magazine and Core77 (it's already been covered in the New York Times and most recently in The Economist, so the culturati know of it), ready to burst forward as steadily expanding maker/made culture pushes it toward a popular inflection point, or, as Ponoko says, enough people "join the personal factory movement". And, as with all hot consumer items, the holiday season marks the window of opportunity for emerging products to take off.
In some ways this is a trivial litmus test. The bigger question is, are we seeing the early signs of convergence of technology and maker culture coalescing with exhaustion waiting for the old-style manufacturing economy to come back (it won't, by the way) to make something bigger, and more important—a shift to a new kind of making economy? Many small signals are emerging that point to personal fabrication as moving closer to an inflection point—in price, accessibility, demand, even desire—that nudges it out of the laboratory and into the larger flowing stream of innovations that catch the eye of the public, of funding sources and, most important, the thousands of bright minds and hands that love to mass-evolve technologies such as this for the sake of it (see also Web 2.0). We aren't there yet, but maybe, like land seen from a crow's nest of an explorer's ship, we can see it from here, making us row faster toward new lands.
More of interest to us here at Changeist is whether, and how, these pieces link up to form a new micro-manufacturing economy—something we see as a possible path of opportunity out of the current slow descent of global mass manufacturing, and many of the cultures dependent on it. Without digressing too far into that discussion, the idea of replacing one mass industry (say, mass automotive manufacturing in a handful of locations) with another (such as mass solar panel manufacturing in a handful of locations, or biotech, or your replacement industry du jour goes here), with another smells of kicking the problem of large, industry-dependent economies down the road a ways. Could a new kind of local production movement less dependent on rivers and roadways, and more on shipping templates and objects of innovation—like a solution to fabbing a particular powertrain, material, or molecular structure—be more resilient, resourceful and attractive to ingenuity? Think about a Detroit filled with automotive salons, where small-scale makers of an ecosystem of vehicles and infrastructure exchange ideas. Isn't that the kind of dense creative environment where innovation emerges?
Still, it's a long road from here to there. To yank us back to reality, an ongoing experiment at the Institute for the Future provides a good guide to the learning and capability curves that have to be ascended before the Personal Factory Movement can expand. Personal manufacturing is attractive to early adopters precisely because it is both pure geekitude and challenging—any smart, able person with means, motive and opportunity can take a swing and make a basic object or two. Three people with a little more funding and effort can grow a small factory, making a handful of items, supplying a niche, contribute some templates, process efficiencies and new extensions, and pass it on. Ten or twenty could make a production line to supply specific industries. We can just about see how one gets from the shed out back to filling an empty storefront downtown. Like, from making bicycles to toying with a flying machine to churning out airplanes. It's how many new industries grew from nothing in cycles over the past few centuries, fed by relatively sudden leaps forward in power, raw materials supply, information exchange, and so on.
Now the focus is shifting from stability to distribution and scalability, connecting personal fabrication resources to make it more affordable, usable and applicable to a broader audience. Platforms such as Shapeways make it possible to share the designs, and those such as Ponoko make it possible to share the output. Now we need to see small economies emerge to help clusters of personal factories take root and grow. It may take a few more holiday seasons, but I'm sure I'll be taking the kids to see the local Maker Village in time to fab up some gifts for mom before too much longer.