A technological revolution, you say? Why three dimensional printers, much to the chagrin of anti-state nerds the world over, AREN’T on the fast track to improving, or impacting, humanity as a whole
Sometime last year, you probably heard stories about that one dude that had a website that got shut down by the Feds because it showed people how to use a 3D printer -- then an ultra-obscure piece of technology -- to manufacture plastic guns capable of launching real bullets.
Well, flash forward a year, and the 3D printer itself has become something of an overnight symbol of post-Gen Y free-floating anti-authoritarianism -- you know, that really nondescript, lazy kind of pop-anarchism glibly unaware that its entire subculture is propped up by an advent created by the government itself.
Needless to say, the demand for 3D printers has shot through the roof, and we’re at a point now where machines of the like are getting pretty close to becoming affordable home appliances. Even now, some upstart companies that have invested in such devices are reporting high earnings off the three-dimensional printing requests of the masses, which, in and of itself, raises more than a few questions.
Let’s take a look at the basic functionality of these printers, why don’t we? As is, unless you’re chunking down NASA money or something, the absolute best device you’re going to have access to will be hardly capable of anything grander than spitting out some gaudy looking plastic jewelry. Or, as one Radio Shack commercial hilariously depicts, the ability to replicate the house keys of others, presumably so you can invade their home and murder them at some point. Of course, 3D printers do hypothetically give you the ability to print out sturdier materials (like, oh say, metal) with more wide-ranging functionality (like, as actual mechanical parts, or even medical apparatuses, like makeshift socket joints), but for most contemporary consumers? Pretty much all the devices allow you to do at the moment is create relatively useless homemade trinkets, making the “revolutionary” pieces of hardware really no more “revolutionary” than arts and craft tools like the Silhouette and Cricut.
The “appeal” of the 3D printer -- itself romanticized to the point of absurdity by the anarchocapitalist crowd -- is that it allows you the supposed “freedom to design your own wares." Instead of buying chintzy jewelry any kindergartner could cobble together in five minutes, you now have the ability to manufacture your own crappy doodads without ever having to pick up a hammer or a wad of plastic string. Methinks the sci-fi nerds are celebrating the “greatness” of this thing a bit prematurely -- lest we forget, all these things are doing now is shatting out nonfunctional plastic shards and super flimsy alloy metals, and NOT giving us our own X-Wing building material or anything.
In the future, I suppose these things could become more advanced, but it’s hard to imagine the really impressive applications of the device -- mass manufacturing, mostly -- ever leaving the domain of industrial appliances. For one thing, the general functionality of the devices don’t necessarily lend themselves to consumer grade applications. No matter how technologically advanced 3D printing gets, I have a hard time imagining American consumers using such devices to cobble together their own furniture or electronics, when they can just amble down to Best Buy or IKEA and buy the already-assembled product. For all the hubbub about the devices being used for more nefarious purposes -- like homemade armaments -- you have to also consider the resource component. Yeah, you can technically create a gun using plastic chunks cobbled together, but without springs and actual bullets, the things will likely do you little good, no matter one’s intent. The fact that many “3D handgun” owners have reported the devices literally exploding on them is but just one testament to the engineering flaws of such “homemade” devices.
To be fair, at least one company has been able to create a fully “3D printed” metal firearm, but said weapon was also designed using powdered metal (good luck finding that at Staples) in an industrial (read: that which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars) printer, and oh yeah -- the artifact itself still had to be manually pieced together, and compared to the junk you could buy at Wal-Mart for $199.99, it’s clearly an inferior consumer good. More expensive, lower quality, and less functionality: that’s pretty much all that 3D printing is promising us at the moment.
Actual products (as in, the stuff you can go into stores and purchase) tend to cost money because of the resources used to assemble said products are either limited or really, really hard to design. I think it’s going to be a long, long time before you see 3D consumer-appliance printers capable of cranking out sturdy, construction-quality 100 percent steel objects, and an even longer time before such devices will EVER be capable of producing complex, high-tech objects, like semiconductors or resistors. Some scientists with too much time/funding on their hands have experimented with “downloadable” food, but don’t get your hopes up -- unless you enjoy “ink” made out of bug guts, it doesn’t look like 3D printing will be a solution to world hunger, either.
Now, COULD 3D printers have gigantic implications on industry, medicine and science as the century continues? Well, it’s pretty hard to argue that it won’t, but at the same time, I have a hard time believing that hardware of the like will get so advanced that it can completely eliminate the handiwork of laborers or designers altogether. Sure, 3D printers might give us a ton of affordable replacement hip joint devices, but the unstated reality here is that said medical apparatuses are clearly inferior to professionally engineered and manually assembled products serving the same purposes. Hell, even the gaudiest handmade and hand sculpted senior citizen jewelry tends to look glossier and better assembled than the 3D jewelry being paraded about by oh-so-many 20s something hipsters these days.
So, why the popularity of 3D printers and 3D printed junk among today’s generation, you may be asking yourself? Methinks it has something to do with the illusion of craftsmanship and production -- i.e., the idealized idea that by plugging in some coordinates on a computer program and clicking a mouse, the individual in question can “create” a tangible, physical good of his or her own “design.” Perhaps all of this “additive manufacturing” hubbub is simply pursuit of futurisms for the sake of pursuing futurisms -- it’s not the functionality of 3D printing that has such an appeal to the “Star Wars”-weaned masses as it is the conjectural applications behind the concept, which, more than likely, will never come to fruition in their lifetimes.
Or then again, maybe it’s just a testament to today’s post-Obama, Reddit-anarchist freedom-loving Libertarian-Internet dweebs and their bewildering consumerism as activism mentalities. Notice the namesake chosen for the “3D” gun that caused such a ruckus last year: “the Liberator.”
Now, as to what 3D printing is liberating the masses from, precisely? That’s a question, it seems, that today’s 4Chan Patrick Henrys are all but oblivious to.