3D Printing and the “end of mass production”

The “Santa Claus Machine“, or nanoassembler, is a tremendously exciting idea, and science fiction authors have been having fun with it for decades before and since the replicator made an appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It’s not surprising that many people are excited by developments in the direction of the replicator, with the increasing sophistication of “3D printing” or “additive manufacturing technology. It’s pretty impressive stuff – load your 3D printer up with either plastic or metal powder (though each 3D printer only works with one or the other) , do your design in the same CAD software that’s been used for decades, press “print” and, when you come back, the component you designed in its physical glory.

As well as innumerable pieces of artwork, one of the most impressive things I’ve seen so far is this 3D-printed model plane from 2011 (which, despite the claim from some UVA press office flack, is probably the first such creation).

It’s very, very impressive. However, it also neatly demonstrates just how far away the replicator, or even the more limited but widely touted “end to mass manufacturing”, is.

About one and a half minutes in to the video, you can see some batteries, electronics and motors wired to a printed circuit board. Precisely none of those things – or anything that requires very precise machining or is made from more than one material – can be made with a 3D printer. Sure, you can make some of the the parts, but you still have to assemble them together – and that’s often exceedingly complicated to do. If I gave you all the parts in a V8 engine, a vacuum cleaner, or a bicycle wheel, how would you go putting them together? Most people struggle to put together Ikea flatpack furniture. And it’s for damn sure that an assembly line is going to be a hell of a lot cheaper and more efficient way to do the assembly than craftspeople assembling one-offs from dozens of bits and pieces they’ve printed out.

Over time, 3D printing will become more sophisticated, and ways to automate the integration of individual components from 3D printers will be devised. We’ll probably have automated prototyping labs with collections of 3D printers, each capable of printing out components in various materials – combined with conventional computer-aided machine tools, which nobody seems to have heard of – and robotic means of assembling those components together.

But it will be a long, long, long time before the universal home, or even neighbourhood factory, where you can print out anything from a new steak knife to an iPad to a car, is possible, and even longer before goods produced in them are cheaper than mass-produced examples of popular items.

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