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What price our fascination with cheaper 3D printing?

The future of 3D printing is firming up as it moves from do-it-yourself tinkerers to key players selling complete consumer solutions. This shift brings important ecological and socio-economic implications…

3D printed hat - just the thing for Melbourne Cup. Flickr/ Hindrik S

The future of 3D printing is firming up as it moves from do-it-yourself tinkerers to key players selling complete consumer solutions. This shift brings important ecological and socio-economic implications.

According to Google Trends, interest in 3D printing increased tenfold in the past two years and shows no signs of slowing down for 2014.

And it wasn’t just the gimmick of 3D printed wings adorning Victoria Secret models that turned heads.

Online, all of those Google searchers were interested in printing everything from food and guns to houses and even fascinators (for the Melbourne Cup).

This year, even Martha Stewart, the American home decoration magnate, declared 3D printing a “good thing” and ordered a few printers herself.

Post offices in France are rolling out 3D printers much like UPS Store in the US. The UK grocery chain Asda is dabbling in the technology as well, offering shoppers a chance to get a mini 3D printed model of themselves.

Create ‘mini me’ models of you and your family.

3D printing is starting to add up for consumers too. A recent experiment by Michigan Technological University showed that, by cheaply making “disposable” household items that would otherwise have to be bought elsewhere (think shower rings and smartphone cases), a US$2,000 3D printer would pay for itself in less than a year.

Why the explosion of interest? As was covered here and elsewhere, many key 3D printing patents continue to expire, and this allows new firms to innovate, compete and explore new business models.

As these 3D printing business models solidify, the bright promises of a new industrial revolution are meeting distinct ecological and social realities.

3D junk

Ecologically, while 3D printing may be “greener” than traditional manufacturing, economies of abundance instead of scarcity could create new problems.

3D printing might upend consumption patterns, but if the logic of economies of abundance that exist in digital content filter through to 3D printing, we’ll be awash in plastic junk.

Preliminary studies of the full environmental life cycle of plastic products suggest that distributed manufacturing with 3D printers can lower the environmental impact of a range of goods by over 40%.

That’s because 3D printing gets rid of the complex commercial logistics chains needed for each product, and the actual printing process allows more objects to be printed from less material.

However, as 3D printing continues to lower the barriers to manufacturing, conspicuous consumption may accelerate.

Think of how ephemeral our interest in digital content is. What if, instead of each new song or podcast you listened to, you downloaded a better smartphone case or must-have figurine for the kids?

How quickly would you get bored of each object if the next thing is just a click and 3D print away? What will we do with all the abundant, accessible, and cheap self-mass-production?

3D printed smartphone cases. Flickr/Shapeways

3D printing may lessen commercial consumption, but a homemade flood of discarded objects may still fill childrens’ toy chests and parents’ sheds.


Recycling consumer 3D printed objects is possible, but it takes energy and only makes production and consumption more efficient – not effectively sustainable. If production increases more than efficiency, we’re still at an environmental loss.

Recycling schemes that do exist are already following all too familiar patterns of global inequality. A group of “social entrepreneurs” suggest certifying “ethical filaments” to fuel the 3D printing drive via developing nations.

In this scheme, labourers in developing nations pick through landfills in “waste picker groups” looking for plastic scraps to sell to the new market of recycled filaments firms. At least we’re not buying “conflict filament” (think conflict diamonds and conflict minerals). Although “ethical” petrochemicals are already being marketed.

3D printing monetised

Aside from the material-ethical implications of 3D printing business models, socio-economic implications are evolving too.

3D printing has so far required a “do it yourself” knack for experimenting and a free and open source knowledge base.

Now, firms are providing seamless, vertically integrated experiences attached to familiar Web 2.0 monetisation models. So, 3D printing is mirroring the corporate turn of Web 2.0 business models that offer services which monetise users' data and relationships while shifting ownership of content to the business.

3D collectibles, the new thing from a digital store. MakerBot (R)

For instance, onetime DIY darling 3D printing company Makerbot recently unveiled its own proprietary online store, where consumers can download exclusive snap-together toys and solid plastic figurines.

The files are similar to an iTunes music file, and come with similar Terms of Use.

Users don’t own the content; they license unlimited prints for personal, non-commercial purposes — although those terms may change at any time.

Of further concern is that the Makerbot file format that users pay for only works in Makerbot printers, and cannot be easily reverse engineered or remixed.

Note that Makerbot does continue to host a more open repository of objects, at, where paid and free (as in beer and speech) content can be found.

Another company, Pirate3D, goes even further in ease of use and intellectual restrictions. Pirate3D hopes to manufacture Apple’s business playbook in the 3D printed world.

The firm aims to provide its customers with sleek design and vertical integration that makes 3D printing cool and ensures that it “just works”.

Like Makerbot, Pirate3D will also offer two tiers of free and paid goods, but keeps its intellectual property even closer. Their main innovation is a printer that operates via their cloud.

Pirate3D’s cloud “treasure island” hosts curated objects for sale and print. It allows you to tweak their shape with a simple tablet application — no PC required to print.

Control of that digital content, including one’s ability to view, modify and print goods, resides with Pirate3D’s servers. We must hope that they don’t sink their own ship, or run afoul of copyright barons.

When Amazon has been known to delete books from Kindles, the prospect of having your favourite 3D widget “disappeared” is real.

Finally, if you still wish to print your own content and make friends doing it, the communal aspect of 3D printing is alive, well and monetised.

For a small fee, the web service 3D Hubs provides connections for “people who want to print to the people owning the machines”. Owners of machines can print jobs at their convenience.

3D printed reality

The evolving monetisation of 3D printing shows the industry is growing up: 3D printed goods are moving out of basements and into kitchens, playrooms and mainstream consumption patterns.

With that change comes market structures that mimic, for better and worse, the social and economic logics of successful web businesses. It will be interesting to see how well these models will work for consumers, industry and the environment.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Wahren

    Self employed

    This is probably off topic, but your reference to ethical oil must be commented on. Your reference leads to what is advertising for tar sands oil from Alberta. Hey what do you reckon, should we use tar sand oil based plastic on our 3d printer and call ourself ethical.
    That aside, whenever mankind has come up with efficiency, our consumption of said more efficient product has increased past the efficiency saving. The waste from 3d printers will no doubt become a pollution scourge of the future. We can print our own shit to throw away without having to buy it first.
    We live in this sick Capitalist society were the question why is inevitably answered with , because we can.

    1. Luke Heemsbergen

      PhD Candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Michael Wahren

      Hey thanks for the comment Michael. "Ethical" oil has inverted commas around ethical for a reason. There was was some shock and some agreement in Canada when Alberta's oil started to be thought of this way. The idea-man behind this push was Ezra Levant. I'll let you google him if you're interested in putting context to those claims. It will always strike me as unethical to leave this place worse off for those that come after us. "Because we can" is a very powerful motivator - let's use it the best we can.

    2. Chris Harper


      In reply to Michael Wahren

      Ezra Levant is a questionable individual in as much as he has a long term demonstrated commitment to classical liberal values, as opposed the 'progressive' values. Free speech, equality under the law, freedom of association and all that right wing stuff.

      'Ethical' oil in as much as it comes from a country where those liberal values are, well, valued, as opposed to the oil which finances religious hatred, ethnic division, national corruption, intolerance and misogyny - ie oil from the middle east…

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    3. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Wahren

      Chris, I share your optimism for the abundance this sort of technology can provide. I've been dreaming of this sort of thing since I first started reading about nanotechnology.

      While waste will definitely be an issue, it is more an issue of the source materials used. It's only a matter of time before somebody comes up with more sustainable materials (recyclable or bio-degradable) that can be used in a 3D printer. Once that problem is solved, the environmental footprint of this is significantly smaller than getting somebody in a developing country to make something and ship it.

      The contour crafting development is another very interesting development. It seems like an obvious development. Aside from the speed and reduced cost to build dwellings, the design flexibility is outstanding. It could enable designs that are significantly more practical but prohibitively expensive to create using "traditional" means.

    4. Chris Harper


      In reply to Michael Wahren


      Don't forget, waste during production will be much less of an issue.

      Creating by adding material, rather than slicing it away, is a quantitative change.

      Equally interesting to me will be what the switch from an economy of sacrcity to an economy of abundance will do to the capitalism/socialism and liberal/progressive arguments. They won't go away, but the issues will be transformed.

    5. Luke Heemsbergen

      PhD Candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Michael Wahren

      Thanks for the explainer and thoughts Chris,

      I tried to stick to the consumer plastics available as they are, well, what's available right now. They allow us to see how dreams of abundance hit reality. If the processes of manufacture are not sustainable, how long can material poverty remain a 'thing of the past'?

      3D metal sintering is really interesting and seems to more directly engage a closed loop of sustained (material) abundance. I join you in looking forward to watching that space…

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    6. Luke Heemsbergen

      PhD Candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Michael Wahren

      @Craig, maybe waste's the solution!, an American recycling company, is starting to recycle human waste (solids of sewage) into plastic, although it is still cost prohibitive.

    7. Chris Harper


      In reply to Michael Wahren

      You said: "but I'm not sure how he's contributing towards classic liberalism."

      His victory over the thugs at the Alberta Human Rights Commission speaks for itself:

      It is not the Charter which enshrines that right, it is Natural Law which does that. All the Charter can do is acknowledge that right. No politician can grant rights, by signing a document or otherwise; we have them by right of birth. All a politician can do is confirm them or breach them…

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    8. Chris Harper


      In reply to Michael Wahren

      BTW, ignore that guff if you disagree. I would rather talk about these technologies than get into an argument.

    9. Craig Read

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Wahren

      Chris, while the video from Eric Drexler is interesting, I think it's a bit off the mark.

      The key problem with what's shown there is the vast number of moving parts. MTBF is likely to be measured in seconds. A machine like that would need to be able to self diagnose and repair for it to be feasible.

      However, with the advancements in both graphene and additive manufacturing, I think many of the same benefits are achievable with fewer moving parts. I don't think we'll be able to build a laptop…

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