The Third Industrial Revolution

12 January 2013 | 8:00 am

We’re standing on the brink of a new phase in world industrial history – get ready for 3D printing.

The Third Industrial Revolution is a phrase bandied about in economic theory. It relates to the development of the internet, the digital economy and the decentralisation of production, but there’s one emergent technology that could make this concept’s rosiest predictions come true. You’ve probably heard of 3D printing, but you’re sure to hear a whole lot more about it as the 21st century ages.

Three-dimensional printing has already led to changes in industry, with rapid prototyping machines enabling the creation of digital objects that can then be translated into physical examples. I personally first came across one seven years ago while I was working for a big games company. Rapid prototyping and computer-aided design were used to make the masters for wargames models. To see it operate was quite amazing.

3D printing is used widely in engineering and for design work, but it’s set to become ubiquitous in the manufacturing of end products, and it’s here the real changes could take place. Here’s why.

The three-dimensional process is an additive rather than a subtractive process. A 3D printer builds an object layer by layer, rather than by taking a block of something and cutting into it. Modern 3D printers can do this with many substances, including metals and ceramics. The savings in raw materials and energy are quite staggering – the process generates as little as 10 per cent of the waste generated in subtractive manufacturing.

The costs of the units are coming down. We could be entering into an era when every home has one, and that could change the world. You’d be able to download designs for a product and print it out at home. In an ironic return to the artisan roles many people held before the First Industrial Revolution put them all in factories, one outcome is that anyone could become a manufacturer, creating and marketing their products from home.

With goods being produced locally, current forms of distribution networks would become redundant, further driving up energy efficiency. At its extreme, 3D printing may even facilitate social revolution, leading to the kind of gift economy envisaged by Charles Eisenstein.

Although 3D printing could lead to the realisation of the Third Revolution’s optimistic “Five Pillars”, like every other major socio-economic change, it will have drawbacks. Envisage a situation where anyone can make whatever they like at the push of a button. Millions involved in the distribution of goods, from truckers to shopkeepers, would be at risk of redundancy. Piracy and copyright infringement would move from the realms of books, music, films and so forth to actual objects. Weapons could proliferate – a project to print out a functioning gun was recently shut down.

Rather than a world where people are empowered, we could be looking at higher levels of persistent unemployment and growth in poverty. More power might be concentrated in the hands of the online corporations who would distribute printing patterns and coordinate localised manufacturing networks. The technology could alter the world beyond recognition.

Nevertheless, the benefits are many. Prosthetics are already being created to fit their recipient exactly, and there is research into using similar technology to print tailor-made transplant organs and even food.

Home 3D printers are becoming affordable. The MakerBot Replicator 2, for example, costs $US2,200. If the technology follows the price reduction of early PCs, it won’t be long before we all have one. Whether 3D printers prove to be a post-industrial toy or an agent of world change will be down to us all to decide.

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