Very rarely, revolutions come which completely change the face of human civilization. The last time that happened was the first industrial revolution somewhere around 100-200 years ago.
The first time it happened was arguably the change from hunter-gatherer to agricultural.
Arguably, the change to 3-D printing may be just as big as that first shift to agricultural and the much later shift to industrial combined.
So far, for all of recorded human history, we’ve lived with scarcity. Scarcity has made us what we are today – top dogs of an uncaring universe which, if it isn’t actively trying to kill us, is at least merely indifferent and sub-optimal.
We live in a society based on that scarcity. Our entire system of value-exchange is based around person A needing item X from person B at price Y, where X is finite and Y reflects that.
…But what happens when scarcity becomes a thing of the past? What happens when you can just punch buttons on a console, wait for a certain amount of time, and then take whatever it is you need from the hopper?
This scenario sounds relatively unlikely (and don’t get me wrong, for the forseeable future it is), but it may be closer than you think.
The reason is because of a relatively new but relatively mature (for the primary stage, at least) technology called 3D Printing, and it pretty much is exactly what it sounds like. Where “ordinary” printers print 2D drawings, a 3D printer prints three-dimensional objects.
Yep, you plug in schematics, dump in the raw materials, and out comes some object at the other end, fully-formed.
Now, at the moment, the technology is in its relative infancy, but don’t let that fool you. We’ve progressed beyond mere proof of concept and are now firmly into the stages where this is a big, proven industry as well as a burgeoning home and amateur scene.
So, what do we print with these 3D printers? Well, lots of stuff. you can of course print prototypes of almost anything in plastic (or, indeed, metal), but there are also 3D printers which can print most of the required parts to build another 3D printer (to be fair, there are 3D printers designed such that 3D printers can print their parts).
You can buy or make these parts yourself somehow… or if you know somebody with a 3D printer (say the commercial makerbot or the opensource reprap) then you’re a few hours and a small fee away from having most of the physical components… and some nights’ hard work away from your own 3D printer.
The futuristic Audi RSQ was designed and built with such rapid prototyping, but recently the industry came under fire (hah, that’s a pun, you’ll find out why in a second) when it became possible to print most of a gun. NASA, in fact, have printed rocket parts with metal, and plenty of cars and aeroplanes are already printed wholesale with 3D printing, and there are plans afoot to build such everyday items as cars.
I don’t want to sound like a shill for any of these companies, so whilst there are some commercial companies that make either industrial-grade or hobbyist models, I want to stress that the field is already huge and only likely to get bigger. Really, for a company near you, just search on the internet.
The point is, right now, 3D printing is the norm for medical gear, for specialist hardware, for quick fix mass-market reproducibles, and for high-tech precision pieces, as well as a burgeoning hobbyist market… but take that to the next level.
What happens when you don’t need to truck finished hardware around the globe? You just truck in the raw materials – metals, plastics, polymers… proteins?
You could just set up shop and start churning out clothes, cars, houses, computers… sandwiches (please note, some of these are already or soon will be here-and-now).
At some point, the technology will revolutionize again – we’ve already had the first vat-grown hamburger. It’s not much of a jump from there to printing hamburgers. Once we’re there… how or why do we need money?
Our system of value-exchange will have to change, unless the powers that be utterly bastardize and pervert the process in an attempt to retain control.
See, money’s just a way of keeping score, but how does that work when we can just print our own houses, or our own supercars, or our own yachts? Either you squash it and somehow justify keeping most of humanity in poverty for the rich elite (and most of us are the 99%, not the 1%), or you somehow move on.
…And that moving on could be the very definition of a singularity, if it isn’t painted as the rich (out of the goodness of their hearts) merely feeding, housing and clothing the unwashed masses.
So keep an eye out, pay attention, and (if you’re of a mind), get into the hobby yourself. Learn what can be made, help improve, test and reproduce, because out of all the hockey-stick trends out there, 3D printing is already on the upswing.