In his recent book „Makers“, Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired Magazine, paints a picture of a future in which everyone can be a maker. The key to this future is a piece of equipment, which like all technologies is expensive at first (read: now) but will rapidly enter the mainstream and become as ubiquitous as the home coffee maker. This piece of equipment is, of course, the 3D printer. And, if future thinkers are right, you will eventually be able to use an Nth generation of this equipment to print your morning cup of coffee.
These arguments resonate with what we have observed in the economics of bits in which a song, a book, a picture, a piece of software, and any number of other products can be bought or shared and squirted onto your virtual desktop through thin air. Taking this model to the sphere of tangible products takes nothing more than, well, that 3D printer. The 3D printer that can squirt a piece of furniture ordered online onto your living room floor.
As Chris Anderson puts it, „The process of making physical stuff has started to look more like the process of making digital stuff“.
The lack of economies-of-scale has plagued small-scale manufacturers ever since mass-manufacturers started churning out products in the thousands and millions. What if economies-of-scale disappeared, to be replaced by economies-of-agility or economies-of-experimentation? Writing and photography were able to become viable small-scale businesses on the Internet – because the products could be delivered entirely electronically and the costs of delivery of the Nth unit are essentially zero. Similarly, now that means to deliver tangible products with little more friction are emerging, small-scale manufacturing, from arts and crafts to medical instruments can also become viable Internet businesses.
Since all that is needed to print an object is a design and since such a design can be created electronically, using any of a number of software applications, we are now seeing an emerging open source movement for tangibles. Just like people have collaborated on, co-created and customized software for years, they can now collaborate on, co-create and customize designs for gadgets, instruments, toys, furniture, you name it. Once the design has been embellished and quite possibly twisted out of shape, it is possible to print just one of whatever to see if it floats.
The Dutch are experimenting with printing houses http://qz.com/68780/architects-are-starting-to-3d-print-houses-but-without-a-house-sized-printer/ and inevitably there is already a 3D-Printed Gun Movement http://motherboard.vice.com/read/click-print-gun-the-inside-story-of-the-3d-printed-gun-movement-video. Never far behind, the lawyers are already on board as the question of who owns and who can print a 3D design inevitably rears its curious head http://techcrunch.com/2013/05/04/3d-printing-piracy-physibles/.
What does all this mean for the traditional stakeholders in the tangible goods economy? Will there continue to be a place for mass-manufacturers that churn out lot-sizes in the millions to be loaded onto cargo ships? How will governments deal with the increasingly intangible nature of even tangible goods that travel invisibly across borders with no opportunity for levying customs or taxes? And what will happen to the trucks? What will they bring to your home town once you can print much of what you need in the comfort and convenience of your own home?