Home' Technology Review : March April 2013 Contents 70
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Inexpensive 3-D printers aimed at
consumers are toys, not factories.
● Will we one day find a desktop factory in
every American home? That’s what enthu-
siasts of 3-D printing technology believe.
To find out how plausible such predic-
tions are, I sat in on a 3-D printing class
at the San Francisco branch of TechShop,
a studio for tinkerers and designers, where
I found myself waiting to see a palm-sized
toy model of the Star Wars character Yoda
materialize from a spool of cheap fluores-
cent green plastic.
Unfortunately, the classroom’s 3-D
printer, a desktop model made by the
Beijing-based Delta Micro Factory, was
acting finicky. Though my instructor had
recently replaced some parts, he was now
on his fifth attempt to demonstrate how we
could print out Yoda from a file he’d down-
loaded from the Internet. As a stringy nest
of half-melted thermoplastic accumulated
on the printer’s platform, he acknowledged
that this Yoda simply wasn’t meant to be.
Manufacturing and design compa-
nies have already found powerful uses for
high-end 3-D printers to quickly produce
prototypes and make customized parts on
demand. What’s said to be coming next is
a consumer mass market, and perhaps a
radical economic shift as consumers stop
shopping and start making what they need.
Fueling such thinking is a rapid increase
in the number of affordable 3-D printers.
The winter 2013 issue of Make magazine,
a publication for hobbyists, lists 15 differ-
ent models, with prices starting around
$500. The head of MakerBot, a company
that recently opened a fancy retail store in
Manhattan to sell $2,199 3-D printers, has
called the technology the start of “the next
The term “3-D printing,” coined at MIT
in the mid-1990s, describes a set of meth-
5.5 inches per side
5.5 inches per side
Delta Micro Factory
9 inches per side
Type A Machines
Consumer 3-D Printers
Printers that let people print objects from plastic at home
BUSINESS REPORT — NEXT WAVE OF M ANU FACTU RING
So the U.S . should look to the taller trees.
The tallest trees in product space are phar-
maceuticals, chemicals, and machinery. It’s
very hard to get into those. Very few coun-
tries are in that game. The U.S. can grow
by using capabilities that few others have.
Is there a manufacturing technology you
see as game-changing?
I think 3-D printing could change the
dynamics. I use 3-D printing as shorthand
for shorter production runs, more design,
and much closer to the market. It’s a para-
digmatic shift in what manufacturing is
going to look like. Historically you think
of manufacturing as an assembly line with
thousands of workers and benefits. But here
we are talking about very small batches,
made close to consumers, and customized.
It will still be manufacturing, but a different
kind of job in a different kind of company.
Will the U.S . create jobs in this way?
If anything, a manufacturing revolution is
going to accelerate a trend toward more effi-
ciency. For the U.S. to base its employment
strategy on manufacturing sounds unreal-
istic. Manufacturing is low-employment.
What else is the U.S. good at producing?
If you look broadly at the U.S . product
space, the country is super-competitive at
agriculture and industries that support it,
like farm machinery, agrochemicals, and
genetically modified seeds. It is strong in
aerospace and pharmaceuticals, and it is the
clear leader in information technology. New
industries often arise from the combination
of capabilities, such as biotechnology that
moves from medicine to seed development.
Is the U.S. staying competitive?
For a while now, the U.S. has been much
less focused on being competitive than most
other places are. Americans have the feel-
ing they are born to win, and if they don’t,
someone else is cheating. The U.S . has many
self-inflicted wounds. It has an infrastruc-
ture that’s increasingly lousy, a corporate tax
rate higher than most countries’, and, worst
of all, an immigration policy that prevents
the attraction and retention of the high-
skilled people who come here to study and
then don’t stay. — Antonio Regalado
1/25/13 5:26 PM
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