I wrote a post a while back about how interplanetary commerce could be stimulated through the use of information commerce (see my Information based inter-planetary commerce post). Last week I saw an article in the Economist magazine that discussed new 3D-printers used to create products with just the design information needed to describe a part or product. Although this is only one type of information commerce, cultivating such capabilities can be one step to the future information commerce I envisioned.
3D Printers Today
3D printers grew up from the 2D inkjet printers of last century. It turns out if 2D printers can precisely spray ink on a surface it stands to reason that similar technology could potentially build up a 3D structure one plane at a time. After each layer is created, a laser, infrared light or some other technique is used to set the material into it’s proper form and then the part is incrementally lowered so that the next layer can be created.
Such devices use a form of additive manufacturing which adds material to the exact design specifications necessary to create one part. In contrast, normal part manufacturing activities such as those using a lathe are subtractive manufacturing activities, i.e., they take a block of material and chip away anything that doesn’t belong in the final part design.
3D printers started out making cheap, short-life plastic parts but recently, using titanium oxide powders, have been used to create extremely long lived, metal aircraft parts and nowadays can create any short- or long-lived plastic part imaginable. A few limitations persist, namely, the size of the printer determines the size of the part or product and 3D printers that can create multi-material parts are fairly limited.
Another problem is the economics of 3D printing of parts, both in time and cost. Volume production, using subtractive manufacturing of parts is probably still a viable alternative, i.e., if you need to manufacture 1000 or more of the same part, it probably still makes sense to use standard manufacturing techniques. However, the boundary as to where it makes economic sense to 3D print a part or whether to use a lathe to manufacture a part is gradually moving upward. Moreover, as more multi-material capable 3D printers start coming online, the economics of volume product manufacturing (not just a single part) will cause a sea change in product construction.
Information based, intra-planetary commerce
The Economist article discussed some implications of sophisticated 3D printers available in the near future. Specifically, with 3D printers coming soon, manufacturing can now be done locally rather than having to ship parts and products from one country to another. Using 3D printers all one needed to do was to transmit the product design to wherever it needs to be produced and sold. They believed this would eliminate most cost advantages available today for low-wage countries that manufacturing parts and products.
The other implication that comes with newer 3D printers is that product customization is now much easier to do. I envision clothing, furnishing, and other goods that can be literally tailor made for an individual with the proper use of design rule checking CAD software together with local, sophisicated 3D printers. How Joe Consumer, fires up a CAD program and tailors their product is another matter. But with 3D printers coming online, sophisticated, CAD knowledgeable users could almost do this today.
In the end, the information needed to create a part or a product will be the key intellectual property. It’s already been happening for years now but the dawn of 3D printers will accelerate this trend even more.
Also, 3D printers will expand information commerce, joining the already present, information activities provided by the finance, research/science, media, and other information purveyors around the planet today. Anything that makes information more a part of everyday commerce can be beneficial, whenever we ultimately begin to move off this world to the next planet – let alone when I want to move to Tahitti…