Last week I had a chance to sit in on two panel discussions on 3D printing and personal manufacturing hosted by Public Knowledge that took place, surreally, on Capitol Hill in the august conference rooms of the US House of Representatives. The Hill was empty due to the Easter recess, which, as one colleague put it, is "probably why they let the nerds in for a day". But the fact that it was, and that, among the sixty or so people in attendance, probably one-third had direct access to 3D printing technology, showed that this is an issue that is now creeping onto the radars of those concerned with the US economy. Bre Pettis of MakerBot Industries likened the moment to an early meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club that spawned Apple in the late 1970s, maybe only slight hyperbolic when we look back ten years from now, given the potential of this area.
iTunes, Etsy, or Pirate Bay?
You could sense the outlines of a fight for the future taking shape—with the boundless enthusiasm for pushing ahead with an almost palpable transition butting up against the suspicion of entrenched interests. The room was literally split between tech journalists, DIY supporters and makers on one side, and lawyers and lobbyists on the other. Talk of micro-patents and micro-entrepreneurship put the focus on the threats that lie ahead for personal manufacturing. The possible futures are starting to take shape, from an iTunes-like market dominated by large commercial interests to creative peer-to-peer markets to illegal "object" torrents—and likely all of these will coexist in the 3D world the way they do in the world of bits at the moment.
Panelists' views of the obstacles standing in the way of a growing personal manufacturing economy include lack of frameworks for IP protection that take into account the novel properties and capabilities of these technologies, development of killer apps, or what someone called "content" sweet spots—with content being designs and categories of objects that will spur wider interest (or, not being solely defined by novelty "crapjects)", and setting up viable networks and clearinghouses for that content.
On a technical level, Cornell roboticist Hod Lipson specifically pointed to need for more accessible creation tools and common descriptive languages that can help standardize and simplify the development of fabrication networks. Like the hundreds of small, independent PC makers of the early 1980s, at the moment we have a jumble of bots that don't speak the same language.
The Future They Fight For
There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room for putting these technologies in the hands of the young, in particular with primary school-age kids, to harness their passion for making things at a young age, to develop their visual acuity, and to give a boost to STEM education in the classroom. But, as one panelist pointed out, many schools in the US having aging, often little used computing technology, and weak connectivity, hampering such a push, and budgets for the simple things like books, supplies and basic instruction are being cut, pushing advanced investments in the economic future like 3D printing in the classroom further down the line just when it could be most powerful.
This excitement about unleashing the unknown is gaining momentum, and the lessons learned from previous generations of technology about education, business models, sociology, etc. may provide useful guides. Designing and making your own tools and objects is an evolution of the personalization of pre-designed objects the young today have grown up with as a nearly universal expectation. As with the PC revolution, and the Internet boom after it, the adults in the room at their creation only set the tools in motion, and the generations after innovate. Only, as they create physical objects, the potential for these technologies is exponentially more disruptive—from bio-printing to large-scale fabrication to printed architecture and areas not yet realized.