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This Shapeways 3-D printer is working from a digital design to create an object out of nylon.

It’s not surprising that 3-D printing has captured the imagination of so many technologists. Create a digital design file or download one from numerous sites now on the Web, adjust a few settings, hit “Make,” and a machine will slowly print the thing, precisely depositing ultrathin layers of a material (usually a cheap plastic) until the object of your design sits before you. It’s a function instantly recognizable to any reader of science fiction.

The basic technology has existed for decades: a group of engineers at MIT patented “three-dimensional printing techniques” in the early 1990s. Companies such as General Electric have used additive manufacturing, as industrial versions of the technology are often called, to make prototypes and complex parts for airplane turbines and medical instruments. But the real cause of excitement is the emergence of 3-D printers that are affordable for consumers—at least those with a thousand dollars or more to spend.

The seemingly magical ability to “turn bits into atoms,” as advocates like to say, has made 3-D printers iconic tools for a growing number of people intent on do-it-yourself manufacturing. Depending on whom you choose to believe, they are comparable to the first affordable personal computers in the early 1980s—or to the Internet itself.

In Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson describes the swelling community of people determined to create their own stuff using 3-D printers, laser cutters, advanced design tools, and open-source hardware. Anderson, who until a few months ago was the editor in chief of Wired magazine, describes the “maker movement” with unabashed enthusiasm, pointing to the proliferation of “makerspaces” in which people can use shared facilities and equipment to fabricate their designs and describing popular gatherings called Maker Faires, including an annual event attended by some 100,000 people in the Silicon Valley city of San Mateo, California. In Queens, directly across the East River from midtown Manhattan, a company called Shapeways has created what it calls the “Factory of the Future,” equipped with some 30 industrial-­size 3-D printers to produce the various designs of its digital customers.

Though many of the products created this way so far are one-off novelty items and customized tchotchkes, ­Anderson insists that the movement is about more than high-tech crafts for hobbyists. In particular, he delights in its Web-like culture of sharing designs and collaborating in online communities. The ability of individuals and small startups to design items and either print them or send off the digital files and have them made is already transforming manufacturing, he proclaims, replacing mass production with custom production: “The idea of a ‘factory’ is, in a word, changing.”

What kind of future might the maker movement bring us? Anderson envisions it could mean that “Western countries like the United States regain their lost manufacturing might, but rather than with a few big industrial giants, they spawn thousands of smaller firms picking off niche markets.”

The problem with this thesis is that ­Anderson makes little effort to explain how a community of creative and enthusiastic individuals or small startups might give rise to an industrial movement capable of transforming and revitalizing manufacturing. His analyses often seem incomplete: “Because of the expertise, equipment, and costs of producing things on a large scale, manufacturing has been mostly the provenance of big companies and trained professionals. That’s about to change. Why? Because making things has gone digital: physical objects now begin as designs on screens, and those designs can be shared online as files.” The reader is left wondering: how does sharing digital designs change the fact that most of the goods we want and depend upon, from iPhones to jet planes, still require the skills and budgets of large manufacturers? Equally frustrating, Anderson often relies on shaky historical comparisons, suggesting that makers are today’s version of garage tinkerers like Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, which spawned the Apple II in the 1970s. For the maker movement, merely sharing the principles and spirit of those renowned innovators hardly guarantees comparable success.

Anderson’s prediction that many consumers will move away from cheap mass-produced goods to the work of “industrial artisans” could someday come true. But, again, his evidence is unconvincing: “Just think of couture fashion or fine wines,” he writes. These are small markets. And for many other goods, people often prefer mass-­produced versions, because they cost less and are at least standardized, if not always great, in quality. ­Anderson suggests that “what the new manufacturing model enables is a mass market for niche products.” But he doesn’t attempt to quantify the economic impact of this shift to artisanal goods. He points to what he calls “happiness economics” rather than conventional macroeconomics as the real justification for custom production: “What’s interesting is that such hyperspecialization is not necessarily a profit-­maximizing strategy. Instead, it is better seen as meaning-­maximizing.”

Perhaps most damning for his ambitious claims about the impact of the maker movement, Anderson has little interest in how most things are actually manufactured. He locates the real value of the subculture in the creation and sharing of digital designs for stuff. Anderson is agnostic about what should happen next: send the design to your 3-D printer or upload it to the cloud and send it to a contract manufacturer in China, he suggests. While 3-D printers will no doubt get more versatile—some advanced models are already able to handle an impressive range of materials, including certain metals—additive manufacturing will remain, at least for a while, better suited to making parts than to building entire machines or devices. As a result, Anderson’s vision for his industrial revolution is too often limited to stuff that can be fabricated by a 3-D printer and laser cutter or easily assembled by a manufacturer acting as a cloud service.

This is frustrating, because the way we make things in the United States is in desperate need of revitalization. The country is still a manufacturing powerhouse, but according to some estimates, it now trails China as the world’s leading producer of goods (see “Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs?” January/February 2012). Perhaps more troubling, it is also behind many Asian and European countries in advanced manufacturing.

In Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance, Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih, professors at Harvard Business School, list critical technologies in which the United States has lost or is at risk of losing its manufacturing prowess. Among them are rechargeable batteries, liquid crystal displays, and semiconductors (70 percent of the world’s foundry capacity is in Taiwan). It is no longer feasible to make e-ink readers in this country, though the technology was invented here.

Shih rejects the notion that innovative products can reliably emerge when designs are shipped off for others to produce. Rather, he suggests, truly advanced products more typically come about when designers and inventors understand manufacturing processes. “You can create a CAD design,” he says, “but you need to understand what a production process can and can’t do.”

Many types of manufacturing require a sophisticated series of steps and processes to be done in precise sequence. Selecting the right materials and technologies is key to high-quality, low-cost results. If designers don’t understand the manufacturing processes and materials that are practical, they will never come up with the most advanced and compelling new products. It’s a lesson that has been repeatedly learned over the last decade in the development of new clean-energy technologies. Innovators may create smart designs for technologies such as solar panels, but ignoring the costs and practical details of manufacturing the new products is a sure path to failure.

It may be too much to expect that Anderson’s makers will have much impact on the manufacture of high-tech goods. But scattered within the maker movement are many clever ideas about sharing, collaborating, and creating consumer-­friendly designs that could help revitalize our thinking about how to produce things. (Consider, as a precedent, Anderson’s example of how open-source software, once dominated by communities of individual programmers, has been adopted by large companies.) One also suspects that the manufacturing sector could benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit and creative instincts of the makers Anderson profiles, as well as from the imaginative uses they’ve found for 3-D printing.

But to get anywhere near Anderson’s lofty goal of revolutionizing industry, individual makers and small startups will have to collaborate not only with each other but also with large industrial firms. And to do that, the maker movement will need to be more curious and knowledgeable about how stuff is actually made.

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Credits: Gilbert 13, Shapeways

Tagged: Computing, Business, Materials, manufacturing, 3D printers

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