Tuesday, May 7, 2013

No more motes: 3D-printing the return of self-provisioning

There is lot of interest--and a lot of hand-wringing angst--over the reality of 3D-printed guns. As the above article notes, anyone with access to a decent 3D printer can now basically make their own gun by using these blueprints. For those unfamiliar with the technology, 3D printing allows the manufacturing of actual solid objects from digital models or information. In most cases, this is done in steps, with the object created via layers of material (plastic, paper, ceramics, or even metals). The process can take days, depending on the equipment used and the size and complexity of the object being manufactured. Objects with working parts are created by "printing" each part, then assembling the final version by hand, as is the case with the 3D-printed gun.

The hand-wringing over this development comes from the anti-gun crowd, who worry about the apparently emerging need to "regulate" such activities, a "license to print" as it were. But the idea of an individually sculpted weapon is nothing new. In the movie In the Line of Fire, the antagonist--played by John Malkovich--constructs a gun from plastic resin, to avoid security checks. As the movie makes clear, though, this was no easy feat. It required time and a great deal of skill. The new "printed" gun requires substantially less of both.

The creator of this weapon, Defense Distributed, has chosen an historically interesting name for the weapon: the Liberator. In World War II, there was a never-fully-acted-on initiative to drop massive quantities of a single-shot, cheaply made handgun--the FP-45 Liberator--throughout occupied Europe to help arm resistance efforts against the Nazis. The guns were actually made, a half-million of them in fact, but U.S. military staff never fully bought in to the air-drop idea.

Choosing the name "Liberator" is clearly intended to be provocative, but I think it is very much inappropriate, insofar as 3D-printed guns reflect a very different trend, as compared to the original Liberator, the FP-45. Again, that gun was cheaply made and mass-produced in factories via government monies, not by end-users at all. Every gun was therefore basically the same, like most modern firearms. The 3D-printed gun actually hearkens back to an earlier time, when guns--like most everything else--were made individually, one at a time. They could be very similar, but each was ultimately unique, especially when comparing ones made by different craftsmen.

Good guns were made-to-order things in many cases, no different in this respect than other weapons like swords in the even-more-distant past. And again, this was just as true of all sorts of other things: tools, clothing, homes, the list is endless. Pre-industrial civilization was far more self-provisioning than the current world as a matter of course (something that is still the case in some parts of the world, to be fair). More often than not, advances in technology have ultimately led to a decrease in self-provisioning, after the application of such advances to manufacturing and mass-production processes.

But there have been exceptions. One industry that has relied on mass-production for a long, long time is the publishing industry. Thanks to advances in printing, however, books and magazines are no longer the province of large publishing houses alone, as pretty much anyone with a printer can easily distribute flyers, newsletters, or the like, and any would-be author can write, publish, and sell books on a print-on-demand (POD) basis. The POD titles out-numbered titles from traditional publishers as early as 2007. The growth of e-books has only exacerbated this trend, as anyone can create and sell those as well.

Guns, while an interesting aspect of 3D-printing, represent only a small potential of such manufacturing, as the cost of 3D printers--once quite prohibitive--is rapidly decreasing. Consider things as simple as plastic utensils. It's easy enough to buy a bag at the supermarket for an upcoming party, but if one has a 3D printer, why not "print" up a batch instead? Costs may still be a bit high to justify this option right now, but in the near future? Plastic toys--like the good old army man--could be made to order as well. As could all sorts of other common household items.

Most see 3D printing as something that allows more people to design and perfect new products--like this baby spoon--in order to then have such products mass-produced. But it also allows the creation of wholly individualized products. Returning to the 3D gun, consider another application of such printing: individualized grips for guns, tailor-made to the exact specifications of one's own hand. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle actually broached this topic in their 1974 classic, The Mote in God's Eye.

The book concerns mankind's first encounter with a sentient alien species, the "Moties," who are trapped in a cyclical existence going from high civilization to collapse then back again. They have used up all of the resources in their solar system--where they are trapped, due to the lack of an interstellar drive--and thus constantly reuse and rebuild things as needed, moment to moment. Everything is made to order, based on the needs of the individual and tailored to that individual. This is accomplished by a highly-skilled caste known as "engineers" and their assistants, "watchmakers." things as simple as chairs and beds are tailor-made, resulting in perfect fits, ergonomically speaking. The humans accidentally discover this when a watchmaker redesigns the handguns of several of their contingent, after carefully examining each individuals' hands.

Things like chairs are quickly transformed by engineers and watchmakers--as needed--to serve different occupants or into other things altogether. This is another potential aspect of 3D printing that needs to be understood: recycling material on site. Suppose, for instance, you need a shovel. You "print" it, use it, but then--rather than store it--you melt it back down so the material can be used to make something else. And again, whatever is "printed" is specific to you; it is made based exactly on you specifications, alone.

There is a huge "app" market out there (there are even 3D printing design apps, by the way), but consider the possibilities of a 3D-printing market, with basic blueprints for everything imaginable, each of which can be adjusted for a specific individual. Armed with only a 3D printer and a supply of raw material, the typical household could make whatever it needed--aside from food--on a daily basis. The above-mentioned utensils, when viewed as wholly recyclable, no longer represent a prohibitive cost. Spoons and forks today, and tomorrow the same material is a part of temporary mixing bowl. Or a TV table. Or pretty much anything else.

This all represents a step backwards, in a sense, into a mercantile world, where raw materials acquisitions overshadow manufacturing. Watch carefully, for there will be many none too happy about such a change.

Cheers, all.