Michal Zalewski at Make throws a huge pail of water on the so-called 3D printing revolution in 3D Printing Revolution: the Complex Reality. He starts off with a point that I have been making for a long time: There is more than one way to convert polygons into physical objects, some of which have been around for a while, like CNC mills, which have not found their way into our garages and living rooms.
This is a critical point, going back to the essence of what we mean by downloadable or digital designs. It isn't about the particular technology, but about freedom to get whatever you want, wherever you want it. That's why all our stories are tagged downloadable designs or dematerialization; 3D printing as people describe it now barely existed. In 2007 I wrote:
It is like the music for our iPod; dematerialized bits and bytes put together again where we need it, without the waste of a physical intermediary. In a world where we watch our carbon as closely as our waistline we don't want to be driving to the big box stores; in a world where almost everything can be digitized, why move material when we are interested in ideas, creativity and talent?
It's not the particular technology that matters; it is the polygon to physical. Additive 3D printing is only one of the digital technologies that are changing the way things get built; there are also CNC routers that have changed the flatpack world. Look what's happening in the Fab Cafe in Japan. It's why I am dismissive of the people claiming to be building the first 3D printed house; the digital house has already been done.
So why have these technologies not found their way into our living rooms and garages? Michal lists some reasons, the first three of which are are all closely related:
- CAD is genuinely difficult.
- There is a lot more to industrial design than meets the eye.
- Mechanical engineering is a real science.
Of course, these are all true. I learned CAD programs for architecture and then Rhino for product development, spent years at University getting the skills I needed to be an architect; it's tough. But just like having a plotter doesn't make you an architect, or having a laser printer doesn't make you an author, having a 3D printer doesn't make you an industrial designer. It is exactly that, a printer. At some point soon there will be a critical mass of designs available to be printed and quality high enough to make it worthwhile having.
Michal Zalewski concludes that we shouldn't be so focused on today's primitive tech. "It pays to focus on the process, not on this week’s most-hyped tool." He's right; what is fascinating isn't the squirting of ABS plastic, but the process of digital design and relocalized manufacturing, whatever the technology.
More at MAKE, via a tip from Christopher Mims.