09/06/2013 10:34 am ET

The Ultimate 3D Printer

From the president's State of the Union address to tech blogs, we have been hearing about how 3D printing will provide revolutionary solutions and innovations. There is good reason to be excited about additive manufacturing, but the ultimate 3D printer already exists and there are already more than 2 billion of them connected to the Internet.

That's right -- people are the ultimate 3D printer, and we can learn to make just about anything.

Exhibit A: Landfill Harmonic

Additive manufacturing machines (aka 3D printers) will significantly impact our world and it's easy to be swept up in all of the excitement, but one must be wary of the initial responses to this innovation. There are many kneejerk reactions elicited by the potential promises of 3D printing, ranging from optimism to fear.

Much of the discourse concerning 3D printing revolves around two key concepts:

  1. Disruptive decentralized production resulting from 3D media files published on the internet.
  2. Additive manufacturing having the physical potential to precisely create complex, high-performance structures beyond the capabilities of other manufacturing techniques.

Both concepts are exciting, but the first is neither new, nor is it even dependent on additive manufacturing for realization. The Internet, not 3D printing, is the thrilling yet scary technology that has already enabled decentralized production. It is already used to transmit instructions on how to print, or how to make, anything from bombs to baked goods.

3D printers are specialized instruments used to create high-performance components to meet exact specifications, thus, they will allow for significant advancements in all sorts of manufacturing fields.

Though with that said, the idea that in the near future there will be widespread use of personal 3D printers producing the majority of household objects is a wildly misguided prediction.

Now, before you tell me in the comment section about how their price will eventually drop and how this technology will be perfected over time, let's consider the 2D printer and its impact on our society. Even after decades of improvement, consumer 2D printers are still finicky and prone to errors.

You could print a book on your 2D inkjet printer, but would you?

But let's assume that I am wrong and imagine a world composed of things made from powdered plastics and metals.

A world in which everything is made from a 3D printer is about as exciting as a world in which every meal is made from powdered supplements.

Widespread decentralized 3D printing would be empowered by ubiquitous materials and interchangeable systems. It would be impeded by expensive specialty technologies that lack standardized inputs. Think about how many inkjet printers are on the market and how each one requires a different type of cartridge. We've had decades to coordinate an effective standardized approach, and yet we haven't.

Just because a technology could be disruptive doesn't mean it will be.

Protein shakes haven't replaced steaks. They are a supplemental option. Sure, scientists are developing ways to grow steaks in a petri dish, but, at the same time, ethically raised grass-fed beef is more popular than ever.

Think about our clothing. We can make high-performance synthetic fabrics that can retain heat and wick away moisture, and yet we don't live in a world where everyone dresses like a Star Trek character (except for you, Under-Armour-Gym-Guy). Synthetic fabrics have not completely replaced organic fabrics; they are just another option added to designers' portfolios.

Or how about those nifty, automatic bread makers? Did they disrupt the bread business? Would a deep fryer in every house put McDonalds out of the French fry business?

Photography didn't kill painting.

One of the most prevalent concerns regarding 3D printing is the possibility of printing weapons, namely guns. But worrying about 3D printed guns when bombs can already be made from fertilizer or from pressure cookers is like focusing on the possibility of counterfeiters destroying our economy with an army of 2D printers, while completely ignoring white collar crime in the financial industry. (Not to mention, at the risk of alarming anyone, there are plenty of analog ways to make guns or even cannons for that matter.)

What is inspiring and revolutionary?

3D printing, while definitely impressive, is only one of many new manufacturing technologies. We can't expect machines to fix problems that our society hasn't. Even if 3D printers were flawless and cheap they would only print what we tell them to.

The exciting opportunity is not just in teaching people how to 3D model and 3D print, it is in inspiring people to participate in decentralized production and then teaching them how.

Teaching people through the Internet to make progressive things to which they otherwise would lack access -- whether they are high-tech machines or common and simplistic items -- is the exciting concept. The ability to instantly transmit design ideas and instructional media for remote, decentralized fabrication to a wide audience via websites like,, and is the game-changing notion.

Through these sites, instructive media is posted, information is dispersed, and people can personally construct an individualized, physical product. People can be taught not just to follow instructions, but also to improve a design as they fabricate. With the addition of feedback loops and forums, participants can then communicate improvements to design ideas, enabling these projects to evolve and to be perfected.

We can use the connectivity of the digital world to curate and share the greatest hits of analog production. Recipes and tips for woodworking, recycling, art, cooking, gardening are circulated, collected, sorted, evaluated, transformed and recirculated.

What the future will look like

Some criticize our growing tendency toward an ever-more synthetic world. This shouldn't be an issue. Don't underestimate the perverse and reactionary nature of style.

As additive technologies make complex, synthetic forms more common, we will find that hand-hewn, simple, artisanal objects will become more desirable as a counterpoint and an escape from artificiality.

It took industrialized factory production to make us appreciate small-batch and hand-made.

Just when we designed high-tech vibrating razors with five blades, we decide that facial hair from 1920s is awesome.

It took the precision of laminates and particleboard to appreciate the irregularities of hand-hewn solid wood.

Just as with any other technological development that we have introduced into our lives, we will mix, match, and blend in the potential of additive manufacturing with our current portfolio of techniques. It will by no means dominate or eradicate manmade craftsmanship. Our cultural sensibilities tend to rebel at the unilateral adoption of the newest technological output. We like to phase in the new with old in varying proportions with motivations ranging from simple pragmatism to the infinite permutations of personal style. We will see 3D printed objects everywhere, but not in everything.

Thinking you need a 3D printer to make things is like thinking you need a Cuisinart for cooking.

If we want people to eat healthier it is better to teach them about food and cooking than it is to hand them a bunch of vitamins and supplements.

If we want to people to live more sustainably we should teach each other how to make more of the things we consume. As we explore the potential of additive manufacturing lets use the discoveries to challenge and reconsider the potential of more traditional means of casting, carving, assembling, salvaging, knitting, sewing....

3D printing won't save the world.

We do not need expensive machines or sophisticated technological devices to produce intricate things.

Exhibit B: DIY Dialysis

We do not need to wait for technology to dictate creation. In creating and sharing even our clumsiest handiwork, others will then be able to take our design concepts and modify them to find better ways to create. Fundamentally, designing and making is about communicating and doing.

3D printers will empower designers to create new things that will improve the world. However, the innovations that we have already designed have not reached all the places in which they are needed. So, while being inspired by promising technologies that can lead to fresh forms, let's also embrace and invest in providing access to the backlog of brilliant ideas that already exists.