Print Me an Army

Now, companies such as MakerBot are selling 3D printers for under $2,000. A current project on Kickstarter is attempting to raise funds for a 3D printer with a price of $1,199. Given the typical price and product cycle we’ve seen in the past, it would be no shock to see 3D printers selling for under $500 in a few short years.

Just for a moment, let us try and imagine a world in which inexpensive 3D printers mean anyone with an internet connection can download schematics for, and print, almost any good one can imagine. At the moment, the materials machines can print with are limited (although not for much longer) but even constraining the technology by ignoring possible organic printing would have profound effects on the world economy.

The end of mass production as individuals download and customise basic schematics for almost any good they want? The impact on labour markets as low-skilled labour is almost completely eliminated (although this is already happening with increased mechanisation of mass production)?

Are we heading for a world in which the only forms of employment are highly skilled (or horrendously low paid)? Are we already there? Given so much welfare growth in developed countries in the last two decades has not been represented in income growth, and even where it has it has benefited a tiny minority (many people are better off thanks to the internet, on average very few are richer) then is 3D printing merely the next rung on the de-industrial revolution ladder?

We already live in a global economy where the most cutting edge technology is affordable at launch for most people in the developed world. The internet is providing for free services which used to be expensive and labour intensive (see the decline of the music industry), making society on average many times better off. Increased mechanisation, lower scarcity of key goods and greater allocative efficiency could well be pushing us towards a world in which we require architects but not builders, farmers but not fruit pickers and software but not hardware engineers. And what about when you build a 3D printer that can print a 3D printer?

Or, of course, everything could stay pretty much the same.

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