The legislation of fabrication – should 3D printing be outlawed?

Here’s another sf-nal thought experiment to keep your brain occupied. We frequently mention 3D printing and fabbing here at Futurismic, but usually in the context of its positive disruptive potential – a potential sea-change in capitalist economic systems, for example. But here’s a negative response from analyst Nick Jones of the Gartner corporation [via Fabbaloo]:

… do we really want an affordable domestic fabber? Fabbers will likely “print” objects using some form of plastic. So the inevitable consequence of mass market fabbing will be a huge increase in the amount of non-biodegradable plastic waste clogging up the planet for hundreds of years into the future. Should we maybe ban fabbers before the problem arises? Like most problems there are solutions, like biodegradable plastic. But if we wait until all the problems with a technology are solved before we permit it, then we will waste a decade or two of potential value; and in any case there’s no way we can predict all the social and environmental issues associated with a new technology before it arrives.

I’d agree with Jones’ last point – social disruption patterns, particularly, are very hard to predict accurately (which is probably part of the reason they’re perversely fun to discuss), and it’d be a shame to lose out on the potential power of fabbing to transform the life cycle of many of the things we use on a daily basis.

But there will be plenty of people who will see fabbing as a threat, environmental or otherwise, and who will push for legislation to control or suppress it. A victorious climate lobby would certainly flex its muscle against a technology that promised to democratise mass manufacture, as would those corporations whose bottom lines would vanish overnight – not just delivery firms like FedEx, but the factories in developing nations that churn out tchotchkes and basic hardware at low-low prices. It will be interesting to see how the traditional left-right political binary will fall across this issue; I suspect it might not be in the direction most easily assumed.

11 thoughts on “The legislation of fabrication – should 3D printing be outlawed?”

  1. Jones makes a ridiculous argument. First, on the notion of waste plastics / materials; a fabbing machine would make exactly what you want, where you want it. No energy wasted in shipping around the globe. Current mass production strategy is to build millions of units to drive a price down. Many of these objects are only partly what the user wants because they’ve been ‘dumbed down’ to appeal to a wider market, and by this non-targeted design they become MORE disposable. What are you more likely to discard, an object made by stranger in uncountable quantities, or something you made yourself?

    The second major point, who does Nick Jones work for? Gartner is no advocate to small startups, they service massive corporations. Corporations that feel threatened by such silly things as file sharing and file copying. Of course they are going to trump up some kind reaction to a technology that could impact not only their profits, but their waste as well.

    Note that in his blog post, he mentions it was a CLIENT that brought up this issue. Who was this client?

  2. Since we still don’t have any mass market fabbing I think Mr Jones’ is pretty much FUD.
    “Fabbers will likely “print” objects using some form of plastic”
    Well no, likely increasing understanding of climate issues will run alongside evolution of fab technologies and we will more likely see the first mass fabbing systems being very eco-friendly.
    Well I think that is more likely anyway, given how much attention is starting to be given to whether or not companies and new gadgets are “green.”

  3. Horatius, I don’t think the argument is as crazy as you think.

    People are not good at planning ahead. I often buy or make things that it turns out I don’t want. I have friends surrounded by artwork that they poured hours of life into, but now they need to sell or give it away to make room for the new art. The problem with any manufacturing process is that objects created tend to outlive their usefulness.

    Think of the Paperless (ha!) office. When we developed the ability to print documents ourselves, we made more of them and took less care of them. Desktop manufacturing reduces the friction required to make stuff. This leads to less care taken in what you make. So more gets made.

    When people in an office can’t find a paper they need, they don’t bother looking that hard, they just print a new one. I am certain that this will happen with objects. “Seen the screwdriver? No, it’s fine let me print one.”

    And if you still think I’m wrong, I’d like to direct your attention to the fashion industry. The more carefully designed something is, the more it is single-use.

    The only way that this gets under control is if one of these comes true:
    1) making stuff is noticeably expensive so people have a reason to be very careful (unlikely)
    2) the materials are easily and cheaply deconstitutable. Plants, clay, metal, etc.
    3) there is a clear “this is so and so’s responsiblity” metadata tagged in and the makers of things have to pay for the disposal of those things (an attempt to legislate 1 essentially)
    4) licensing schemes for manufacturing prevent widespread adoption and overuse

    Any others?

  4. Also, “no energy wasted in shipping around the globe”?! How, precisely, do you propose that the materials will show up at your door? Besides, much of the energy cost of this stuff isn’t transportation, it’s creation.

    For lots of materials the energy to create something is way more than the energy to transport it. That is why energy intensive manufacturing is centered around places with cheap energy costs, such as Aluminum smelting in BC and Quebec. California can’t support the energy requirements of reconstituting old objects into new useful objects. It makes more sense to ship the raw goods somewhere with cheap labour and energy costs to get recycled and manufactured again.

  5. Fair points, but I think most of the first points you make I would see as positives, not negatives.
    If your friends are making so much art they have to sell or give it away, how is that a bad thing? In my mind, anything made yourself is infinitely more rewarding than something you have merely consumed.
    For the paperless office, other than paper for sketching, I do all my correspondence electronically. The only paper documents I hold onto are the ones I have received, usually from institutions that still insist on shipping these odd things out by the thousands. Also, cheap desktop printers are a perfect example of how putting production into the hands of the private individual has been anything but disastrous. Paper is a farmed product, it can be quite sustainable.
    I have tools I made myself which are one-of-a-kind and I’ve never bothered replacing. Still got ’em, still use ’em.

    Perhaps my general attitude toward consumption is different then that of most people.

    Plenty of other points I could get onto here, but most importantly is the issue of energy wastage. I was over-generalizing with my statement, but I still stand by the underlying message. If I can make a product myself, or have it made in my neighborhood, it’s likely to be much more sustainable than something made in another continent. The fact that we have enjoyed a windfall of extremely cheap energy over the last century does not mean we can continue to rely on it for our convenience. Our need to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, combined with the shortage in fossil fuels which we are only now beginning to experience will make a huge impact on our ability to market cheap mass-merchandise on a global scale. I’m not suggesting that oil is going to vanish, I know we have a century or more of the stuff lying around, the point is it’s going to cost drastically more than it has in the past.
    For local fabbing and desktop manufacturing, I think a major cost factor will be what materials can be sourced locally.

    Overall I still think it’s a joke to say that affordable fabbing can be harmful overall. It’s like saying that home gardening, home music recording, or personal computers are detrimental to the planet or society.

  6. “Should 3D printing be outlawed?” Sure, why not? But only in those countries that have no interest in actually mattering to anyone in the future. After all, who really needs: (1) technological progress and/or (2) individual freedom, right? Sigh. Note also: Honorable engineers deserve to live among more sensible citizens.

  7. Horatius,

    What we have to figure out is if home-fabbing is like home gardening or like home mining.

    Efficiencies of scale matter. The reason that we don’t rely primarily on home gardening to feed us is that most of us frankly aren’t that good at it and we do better if we do other things, both as an individual and as a society.

    You mention oil and energy use as a problem. On this we agree. But all the home fabbing gear so far (I am hopeful for a change) is petroleum-based and it uses energy that is highly probable to be coming from carbon spewing sources. Transporting material and building it on-site is going to be less carbon efficient than building it near a hydro-dam and then transporting the results.

  8. Can we discuss standards where these devices print their parts with a recognizable product tag (chemical or microchip based), designating components, creator, creation date, use, documentation? And most of all – how to disassemble it. I see no reason to assume that disassembling nanofabricates to be several orders of magnitude more expensive than the reverse. The author as such remains blissfully stuck in his flatlander paradigm while staring in distress at the ocean, speculating you might fall off at the far end.

    I have a different prediction for him – in a few decades you’ll see massive churning nanofabricators ripping up landfills for resources, disassmbling fossil barbie dolls, newspapers, condoms, mac wrappers, tupperware, toothpaste tubes, corroded batteries and halfdecayed cats. The government will sell the right to process landfills to nanorecycling companies. Eventually western companies will bid against hyderabad landfills (of which there are already many) for plush contracts to turn landfills into ‘energy-forests’, or raw materials.

    My hope is this recycling potential will eventually extend well into atmospheric carbons – the biggest prize of all ! Please don’t scrub out all the CO2 for your fullerene industries, or we’ll be having to add even *more* orbital nighttime reflectors to heat the planet.

  9. Why wouldn’t an assembler have a recycle function? Something you print breaks, is outmoded, outneeded, or just plain unlikely to please the eye, toss it in, have it melted down and reused?

  10. It’s quite an imaginative but unrealistic notion that 3D printing and fabbing should ever become a environmental threat let alone become big with the general public. Most people are not of the required temperament to be interested. It will be only the minority DIY builder/hobbyist types (with an uncommon amount of free time) that will be inclined to utilize this. The great majority of people are interested in technology and its products only insofar as they can conveniently just buy it, turn it on, and not think about it. If something breaks or stops working, the first thought is throw it away and buy something new to replace it with. It is these people, being the vast majority, who (in compliance with mass marketing by business/industry) perpetuate the throw away consumer society, with all its inherent waste, litter and unnecessary pollution. And just as established manufacturing industries will be certain keep it, this majority of consumers simply won’t be adopting 3D printing and fabbing. So no 3D printing and fabbing on a massive consumer scale to worry about here folks.

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