THE BLOG
06/06/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Digital Fabrication: More Than the Stuff of Dreams

America's economy will suddenly grow by $400 billion -- roughly three percent --on July 31, when the Bureau of Economic Analysis begins to include in its GDP calculations the value of investments in such intellectual property products as songs, books and movies. The new numbers will reveal that Stephen Sondheim, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Ray "Even Stevens" Stevens have been far more important to the nation's financial well-being than government stats have previously indicated.

This news feels as uplifting as a double dose of premium-grade placebo. But there's more than feel-good bookkeeping at stake here. Plays, stories, films and music generate wealth -- wealth government stats are supposed to measure.

The nation has always struggled with who owns that wealth. In the Wild West frontier of the internet, music, films and news were easily pirated. Now, there's a newer, quite possibly wilder West, this one represented by the arrival of the 3D copier and the promise of a revolution in digital fabrication.

You may be skeptical about the process by which a copier can spit out ears, earrings, guns and chocolate. What's even harder to wrap one's head around is the possibility that within a few decades, you personally may be able to make most of the stuff you want anywhere, at any time and for a fraction of the going rate.

The aptly named website Pirate Bay calls digitally fabricated items "physibles" and claims, both literally and metaphorically, "We'll be able to share not only a recipe, but the full meal."

Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and the creative force behind a pioneering "FabLab," takes things a step farther, predicting that we'll be able to "turn data into things and things into data." If he's even half right, our very notion of "stuff" -- its manufacture, its ownership, its effects on the environment -- may become as anachronistic as gladiators and town criers.

If all this sounds too Rod Serling meets Harlan Ellison, consider that President Obama, in his most recent State of the Union Address, said, "A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

The future is unknowable and perhaps unimaginable, but that shouldn't stop us from pondering the thrilling and terrifying consequences of advanced digital fabrication. Shipping costs, child labor and pollution could be vastly reduced. But where will the jobs be? "We're on the verge of the next industrial revolution, no doubt about it," Dartmouth College business professor Richard D'Aveni told Yahoo News. "In 25 years, entire industries are going to disappear. Countries relying on mass manufacturing are going to find themselves with no revenues and no jobs."

For a musical glimpse into this future, check out the "vinyl" records Amanda Ghassaei has created via 3D printing. Daryl Friedman, chief advocacy & industry relations officer for The Recording Academy (The Grammy folks), thinks we don't need to worry about widespread digital/fab piracy, at least not yet: "With numerous free and legal digital music services, it's unlikely that the average consumer would opt to print his own vinyl records. The real challenge will be to the hard goods industries. This is more about cars than The Cars."

The Journal of New Music Research reports on the production of a 3D-printed flute, and though a Steinway may never pop out of your computer, most of the parts probably can. (Since each key on the keyboard has nearly 60 levers, springs and screws, imagine the cost savings.)

All this creates thorny issues of ownership and compensation for creators of both the intellectual stuff the BEA just got around to recognizing and physical stuff, which won't be so, well, physical.

With Napster, people could rationalize that they were borrowing invisible, impossible to own "data." But producing your own objects is more analogous to making copies of a Picasso or a great piece of album art for resale. Morality aside, if everyone's printing copies of your albums, sculptures and manuscripts in their basements and dorm rooms, who you gonna sue?

In which case, what's the incentive to innovate? Or does innovation accelerate as everyone works to stay one step ahead of the knock-offs?

So thanks, Bureau of Economic Analysis, for the GDPat on the back. That was the easy part. The radical challenge of digital fabrication is dead ahead.