No, seriously. Well, maybe not a whole car.
No doubt you’ve been reading about the new 3-D printers. They build up solid shapes by placing layers on top of each other. Already, the number of materials used in 3-D printing is at two dozen or so. Most of these are in powder form, with some sort of material or process that solidifies each added layer. They vary from many kinds of plastics to things like chocolate and cookie dough (!), human skin substitute, electronics, various metals, and more. Unfortunately, there’s already talk of downloading and printing a gun.
It is certain that 3-D printers will have a profound effect on the way we produce many of the things we use in daily life, not to mention those that we don’t ordinarily see.
It is certain that 3-D printers
will have a profound effect
on the way we produce things.
3-D printers are now in their “adolescent” stage, as it were, version 2.0. You can get one for as little as $300 and for as much as $20,000 or more. Right now they are still pretty slow and limited, but that was true of every technological advance of recent years. Consider the price of personal computers and digital cameras. Some three decades ago, both were in the range of $20,000 for advanced models, which had a small fraction of the present capabilities of common models that cost far less.
What this will mean for the future is mind boggling. 3-D printers hold the possibility of producing at home for relatively little cost an almost unlimited number of useful items, and producing commercially many others at far lower cost than at present.
Let’s say you want a spatula for your Teflon wok. Print it, for nominal cost. Make a hammer, screwdriver. Coat hanger, desk lamp, shoe rack. Make a hat, shoes, belt. Baseball bat, hockey pads, camping gear, climbing equipment… What’s the limit? And this is only home stuff. Manufacturers already make thousands of parts like gears, levers, box-shaped assemblages, and so on.
3-D printers hold the possibility of
producing an almost unlimited number
of useful items at low cost.
Let’s think about what this will mean, about whether they will become a force for democracy or a force for capitalism, which will probably depend greatly on how we manage these new devices. If we manage them well, there is likely to be a decentralizing trend, with commercial fabrication more locally distributed. This could be beneficial for most of us because such businesses are less likely to be of interest to corporate moguls, and more likely to be locally and worker-owned, thus more democratic and economically beneficial to us non-rich. Generally speaking, decentralization is good.
Right now, manufacturing robots have reached their 3G stage, version 3+. These are the ultimate capitalist dream: few laborers to be paid, all profit going directly to the owners. They are a mature technology now, and can accurately assemble just about anything, and much faster and more accurately than any human. But they displace jobs by the bushel basket, and they cost truckloads of cash. 3-D printers will invade this market, I hope for the better.
Going back to our car, remember that Henry Ford’s factory brought in iron ore at one end, and spit out finished cars at the other. The investment was immense, and the plant was huge and complex. But is there any reason today that a small company with the right kind of 3-D printers, a plastics extruder, and some good suppliers could not put a dependable and economic electric car on the road?
Every part of a car’s chassis and frame can be made with extruded modern materials that are lightweight, stronger than steel, and can be made into just about any shape. These can be made in a small setting; a huge factory is not needed. Hundreds of parts, if not thousands, could be printed on site. Things like battery casings and even their metal plates. Housing for the electric motors, even the rotors. Wheels. Hundreds of things, and all of them with very little immediate human input. The humans would be busy with other aspects of our car’s manufacture and assembly.
3-D printers will be able to build a substantial part
of an inexpensive car made in limited
numbers and available only locally.
It’s quite possible that the end result would be an inexpensive car made in limited numbers and available only locally, doing away with trans-oceanic and trans-continental shipping, extensive supply and service facilities, and all the rest we associate with the automotive behemoths. Our electric car would be serviced where it was made, on those few occasions when service was needed.
These places would have limited interest for capitalist investors simply because of their smaller size and the inherent limits on their production. But they might be of enormous interest to people who want to be worker-owners, and they might link with other small worker-owned companies who make certain specialized parts for their cars, say, computerized controls or various types of electronics.
This is coming. It’s almost here. Heck, the other day I watched a video of a 3-D printer making fancy Christmas cookies just for fun. All that is needed is further technological development and economies of scale, which could happen next week. It will be most interesting to see how it plays out, but you can be sure it will change everything.