My last post i mostly discussed 3D printing impact on guns, gun laws and social dynamics as a result. However while the potential for every house to have a sizeable armoury (yes exactly like every zombie game you’ve ever played) is scary, what poses a much greater challenge to world governments and society in general isn’tthe prospect of virtually free instant weaponry it’s the huge impact 3D printing will have on manufacturing methods, and as a by product the global economic system as a whole.
Now i live in Australia. Australia is only really famous for one export right now, and it’s a constant source of political tension- it’s the great mining boom. Australia currently ships immense amounts of iron, gold and copper ore overseas, particularly to China.
The current system of mass production predictably well, deals in bulk. Huge amounts of ore are shipped from australia to China, where they are fed through massive refinery complexes, trucked to equally massive factory complexes, then shunted onto an unending production line where they get turned into into car unibodies or something similar.
At which point they are shipped back to australia, sold to a wholesaler, who sells them to a retailer, who in turn sells them to a mining worker.
It’s a system that relies on massive quantities and slim profit margins. The ore is sold for (well at the moment quite a lot more) slightly more than it’s worth to dig up, the steel from the mills is sold to factories for slightly more than it cost for them to make it, then to the wholsealer for slightly more than the car cost to make, then to the consumer for slightly more than that.
It’s a system where each middle man gets a little slice of the pie along the way. International exports/imports and global trade are the backbone of this system, and have been for the past 200 years, but especially within the last 30. I once went to a Mitsubishi car plant in Hiroshima, and they import components from all across the globe and then ship their cars back.
For better or worse, 3D printing eliminates the need for that.
A modern factory is precisely tooled to the job that it does. A car factory can only produce cars. A processor factory can only make processors. This is why R&D and protoypes cost so much, because in addition to actually making the car, ou need to build the machinery to actually build the car, in fact the original raison d’etat for 3D printing was as a “rapid prototyping” machine to do away with such expenses.
And this is the promblem. Even today’s deskside 3D printers can print nearly any geometrical structure. Sure there’s a size limitation, they aren’t particularly strong, and they print in a variety of plastics (noticeably ABS), but the concept is sound. Industrial printers can do a whole lot more. The next generation of printers will be able to print in steel and aluminum, and other much stronger building materials, faster.
Now a printer that makes trucks can also make bikes at a flick of a switch.Smaller ones can change from nanobot production to computer processor production nearly instantly.
And this will change the way our society buys things. One visionary said on the radio a bit back(and forgive me i’ve forgotten his name and trusty google has not found him for me)
“People don’t want choice, they want exactly what they want.”
I don’t want a toyota Yaris in black with leather seats. I want something that looks like it’s out of Tron. And because of the vast resources of the internet, by the time you can build a tron-like motor bike, it’s probably already been designed by at least one forever alone engineer in his mother’s basement.
Already in the near future we’ll be printing up the fast majority of smaller, simpler, items such as cutlery, fittings, chairs, tables, cupboards and such at home, in our own domestic printers. All of the above can be achieved relatively easily with current technology, let alone in 10 years. A chair for example does not require a particularly noticeable level of precision, or advanced difficult matierals- it simply requires a sizeable printer.
The only items that would require you to actually buy rather than build yourself are marco-complex or micro-complex objects. That is things that are fundamentally too small to produced by a garage printer, such as say, a computer processor, or something that is too big or requires really high melting point matierals such as a car.
Most probably these two functions will eventually be handled by community industrial printers that you book for a few hours at a time to print out your car, but that’s a fair bit down the track.
The real point of that Mass production, capitalism, and the great global trade network has a real chance of going out the window.
Why would you bother to ship 500 brand new japanese cars to Montana if you can print those 500 new cars in a country town in Montana itself? In fact why bother with the 500? rather than providing a massive supply of goods, everything would be made to order, eliminating industrial waste. The price of every physical commodity dives.
And this is the part where the world economy crashes.
Australia is the best example. China no longer becomes the manufacturing centre of the world simply because it no longer has an export market. As a consequence it no longer buys massive amounts of australian ore to supply said export market. And now the mining boom goes out the window. China now faces a massive problem with what to do with it’s now mostly redundant industrial infrastructure, and how to re-employ all the factory workers which are now have no job.
Sure the industrial appetite for physical commodities is immense in a country with 1.3 billion people, but seeing as China is effectively acting as the manufacturing sector for most of the developed world, it’s a safe assumption that there will be a slack in industrial employment.
As a consequence the Australian economy crashes because it no longer has such a vast demand for it’s resources. At the same time Australia, which only has a few thousand people left in the industrial sector will now need tens of thousands of more 3D printing engineers to run the local community fabricators.
It’s ironic and strange that instead of selling vast amounts of ore to china, then buying back the product, making the product at home is more harmful to the australian economy.It’s kinda counter intuitive that a massive decrease in costs for everyone has a pseudo negative affect.
The world is currently incredibly specialised in it’s manufacturing roles, however this will reverse over the next fifty years.
Ironically one of the few countries left in the world that still has a sizeable mining and manufacturing industry is the USA. Manufacturing giants Korea and Japan rely on imports and under the new system will be at an inherent disadvantage to countries such as Australia or Chile that possess sizeable natural resource will experience the opposite.
Our economic system will need to adjust fundamentally to adjust to this.
Let’s say that a mid range laptop in the year 2040 costs some 75 dollars relative. The relatively high price compared to the massive reduction in most products is only due to the relatively high quanties of rare earth matierals and hiring VHD (very high definition) circuitry printer in order to make the processors.
The problem is when everything is drastically cheaper, where does the money go? How does the economy adjust to the fact that now 5000 dollars PPP is actually worth a lot more than the same sum in 2000? The technology actually changes the way our entire economy works. Further more how does this alter the dyanmic between human services and physical production.
For example, a writer authors a book or a doctor works in a hospital. Both these professions are going to undergo radical change in the next century, but it’s unlikely that the fundamental job description will change. A Doctor gets paid a large sum of money now, because he needs that much money to buy commodities. How much does he get paid when laptops are 75 dollars rather than 1000? how much will a book sell for in the same environment?
Perhaps the most interesting side affect of 3D printing and additive manufacturing in general is that it makes communism viable. There’s a lot of misconceptions about communism. It’s stained by the soviet experiment in the 20s, the prevailing US anti-communist sentiment, and China’s Pseudo-Communist society. The ideas that centred around communism by it’s interpretations are actually extremely different from the core idea presented by Marx in the 1850s. Big government, dead equal pay, big brother like control, dictatorship, their all baggage from the interpretation of the idea, including that somehow Democracy and Communism are two cosmically opposite ideals. People, Communism is a subsection of democracy. If anything the idea of communism is simply democracy of the industrial system rather than the political one.
At it’s heart, Comunism’s idea is simple- That the factory workers should control the means of production. Communsim originally was a labour rights movement. Pigs, dictators, personality cults, media suppression and such were more a consquence of failures to implement communism rather than communism itself. Communism- rule of the community, something impossible when industry and services must be conducted at a state level by social-economic realities.
However that’s exactly what 3D printing does. It allows a community to become economically independent from the rest of the world, with the noticeable exception of raw materials. It gives citizens the control of the means of production. Everything from guns to combi harvesters, from antibiotics to narcotics. It gives the community (the comune) effective independence from the state at many levels.
If that’s a good or (as i discussed in my previous post) a bad thing remains to be seen.
Cities too take a beating. Cities are the epitome of the marco-economic system, and exist because it’s cheaper to ship all the cars and services to one point rather than to several hundred. Same with the centralisation of services. As i discussed earlier, the economic forces that keep cities intact weaken, while giving everyone guns make them a whole lot more dangerous.
During and for years after the great pseudo-Depression after 3D printing collapses the mass production capitalist system, there will probably be a substantial urban to rural immigration, especially among the middle class.
This is possible because even though we might live in a city of 4 million, 10 million, 20 million, we don’t have an awful lot to do with most of them. The average human only really intereacts with quite a fundamentally small set of people. Theory about how we were to measure this was somewhat difficult until the internet.
Now we have this wonderful thing called Facebook, which deals us with a reasonable degree of accuracy how many social relationships a person has. Facebook isn’t perfect obviously because not everyone is on it, and because it leaves out important sections of society.
However, the Facebook Anatomy Social graph which wins the prize for the most confusing graphs i’ve seen in a while, gives the average number of friends at 190, but in more recent times this has been pinned at 234. Now as a reasonable guess, it would probably be about 400 if you included all the people who don’t have facebook but you would be friends if they did.
Only 400. Less if you count those that rank as friends & family rather than just acquaintances. that’s not even a drop in the pond of a regular city. Seeing as the primary reason why we stay in cities- goods and services weakens, while the social pressure from cities only increases. Possible increases in lifespan would also contribute to the shift. People already go to the country to retire, however the differences in the ability of a 70 year old to contribute to the local economy today, and when the life expectancy is 120 would be substantially different.
There’s also the question of space. ultimately we’re going to run out of space. But you can’t run a economically sustainable country at population stagnation. Economic growth is tied with growth in the population. technological advances and levels provides a variable, but the relationship is clear.The more kids you have, the larger the growth in the economy, and the smaller the aging population.
Japan is the best example. Japan is currently experiencing a population decline, brought about by low fertility and almost a complete lack of any immigration.
As a consequence Japan has a massive aging population, economic stagnation, and is a ghost of the economic powerhouse it was in the 70s and 80s. the debt crisis in the 90s has some role, but the overall trend is clear.
Other countries watched and learned. Singapore is looking at ways to boost it’s own fertility. Western countries, despite all the noise they make about migrants, are more multicultural than ever before. No one can stop growing in population and not fall behind economically.
Now of course this leads to a problem. 3D printing drastically reduces the strain on world resources, it’s far less wasteful to the environment than the current system, and isn’t discriminate about which type of power it uses. If nuclear fusion comes to fruition in the next few decades, then besides from a few anomalies such as steel refineries and planes, then the world could be nearly totally emission free by 2065 or so.
That doesn’t change the fundamental problem of space and resources though, It won’t stop the amazon from being turned into farmland to feed millions. Eventually if we want to keep the earth alive, we’re going to have to leave. And this is where 3D printing comes in useful again.
A settlement on the moon would not need shipments from earth. Placed properly at poles (supplies of ice to make water, air and rocket fuel) it could produce everything it needs to keep expanding. In fact settlements on the moon would probably be the hubs of early spaceship production, as it’s tiny gravity well makes it a hell lot cheaper than shipping things up from earth. Exactly how to keep humans healthy and happy in a sixth of a G, living inside a city of domes is another question.
The same thing of course applies to Mars, Venus, Ganymede, and anywhere else you want to plock down. Other things would be needed of course, ranging from cheap transport to orbit (you’d probably need something like a space elevator for this one) to compact fuel sources, but 3D printing (and any sucessor technology such as replicative nanobots) is crucial.
So yeah. That’s the future as i see it behind 3D printing. Maybe i’ll talk a bit more on space next time.