3D printing and fab tech: what are the economic forces?

Dr Manhattan didn't need a 3D printer

A company is shipping files for 3D printers rather than replacement parts. Shipping costs are apparently 'prohibitively high'. A chap from 3D print design site Shapeways says:

If they were to make all replacement parts and add-ons downloadable and 3-D printable, they might not need to even manufacture the parts themselves; they can simply release the file and the synthesizer owners can 3-D print at home, or with a 3-D printing service like Shapeways. In this way they do not need to mass-produce, hold inventory or distribute their products; they only need to design and release.

I saw this just after a conversation about whether it's possible to plan for reducing transport costs by changing where production takes place. (This actually happens in some sectors - I'll come back to that in another post.) Here's another example of much the same enthusiasm.

Just assume for a moment 3D printers and fully equipped fablabs (let's call it fab tech for short) were capable of making more or less anything. (There's a nice little fictional account here.) The design process happens entirely in software and can be torrented like any other file (with all of the IP implications that would have). This isn't a realistic picture: material input into something like an iphone is very specific, and you'd have difficulty printing a nuclear bomb without enriched uranium (though it appears guns are less of a problem). As with any industrial revolution, fab tech would be more likely to change the commodity landscape, not product-for-product replace our current one.

Even if that world of a perfect split between software design and hardware printing were possible, what does it look like? It's a beguiling question, and I can imagine two opposing forces: an increase in Jacobs-like innovation dynamics and a rather more mundane 'weight of stuff' and production cost problem. As a first guess, I think the latter is probably by far the most important, but it'll be fun to think through more.

The first is embodied in the fablab idea (I wonder how Manchester is getting on with theirs?). A world of superfast, efficient prototyping where basic material requirements are less simply because it's additive not subtractive, and other industrial needs like water are minimised. It's also very Jacobsy: modular recombination is the norm.

Though back in '69, her story of how Japan developed its bicycle manufacturing sector is not so different. It starts with repair shops springing up for imported bikes and ends with -

groups of bicycle repair shops... almost doing the work of manufacturing entire bicycles. That step was taken by bicycle assemblers who bought parts, on contract, from repairmen: the repairmen had become 'light manufactureres'. [64]

She also says Ford motors started out recombining supplier parts, not making their own. Jacobs' analyses always have a razor-sharp eye for the organic, evolutionary processes that produce what can seem to have been built from some blueprint. (She's a bit like Hayek in that way.)

So is the modular, evolutionary world of production she found in the 60s likely to be radically altered by these new technologies? She describes what she found as a process "full of surprises and hard to predict - possibly it is unpredictable - before it has happened." She likens it to art: an attentive feedback by those creating.[59]

Fab tech may provide a gateway to a massively more connected Jacobs dynamic (what's often called a 'Jacobs externality', but that's too aggregate, reducing it to a 'diversity multiplier', missing what drives it.) Will this do for stuff what the net has done to democratise media production? Or is that missing the point of where and how innovation happens, and what the real role of the city is in that process?

Then there's geography. Specifically, distance and value density. This gives me most reason to wonder if fab tech can ever lead to some utopia of weightless production. Material things still need materials. Make another assumption: that the raw stuff being fed into the machines is available reasonably cheaply, and doesn't e.g. require a vast petrochemical industry to supply it. How much does the raw material cost and where is it being shipped from?

Value density is wonderfully simple idea with such profound importance for the spatial economy I'm surprised it doesn't get more attention. It's the ratio of a good's value to its physical bulk (size and weight can both be important for different reasons; think about Kenyan green beans vs insulation rolls). As well as determining which goods will be air-freighted (only high p/w), it is vital for determining how far stuff can be moved and still be economically viable. This writes itself into the shape of production networks: as value is added, those networks can spread out. Right at the raw production end, often the first stages of processing will be very nearby. It ends up being a large factor in where subsequent innovation clusters develop in the network.

There's a lot of argument about how true this still is (contrast hard drive design in silicon valley and production in South East Asia). It's one thing that GRIT will look at in more detail from a UK perspective. (Other work has already applied the Business Structure Database to this problem.) But applying it to fab tech, it reveals an obvious problem: if the primary inputs are cheap (and they always are, relatively, as little value has been added yet) it becomes much less viable to ship it over distance. This was the reason given by 'Teenage Engineering' for not shipping parts, but for quite different reasons. From their point of view, it may well be cheaper if the customer is paying for the manufacturing equipment, the raw materials and the labour time. But what would the overall cost effect be? Just because it's external to the firm doesn't mean it won't affect them - any more than a hairdresser's location choice won't impact on the amount of custom they'll get.

One of the ideas I got through the PhD work was that it sometimes helps to ignore the distinction between household and producer. The transformation of food processing over the 20th century makes much more sense if it's thought of as a change in production structure as wealth increased and relative time value shifted, so that 'outsourcing' of food processing became viable. All that processing used to happen in what we'd call households: everything necessary to make sure communities could get through winters. On a different scale, I saw a version of this in microcosm over years at festivals. As we moved from students to wage earners we decided to maximise our festival time by paying others to process our food for us rather than spend hours collectively cooking our own. I say 'decided', of course it was just revealed preference!

In other ways, households are clearly not like producers. Think about food again: in purely economic terms, something bizarre happens. At every other stage in the food network, economies of scale rule - right up until the point food crosses the house threshold. There are some places that isn't true: kibbutzim, cohousing. (Or, from a different perspective, restaurants and takeaways.) But we don't all set up collective kitchens on our streets. The last stage is atomised in households, and people presumably want it that way, despite huge unexploited economies of scale.

Anyway! Thinking about fab tech from this point of view, the same forces effecting what we'd usually think of as 'producers' apply to households - and increasingly so, the more one imagines a fab tech scenario where manufacturing becomes embedded in home and community. Even if fab tech dramatically lowered the cost of production, that would still leave the problem of accessing raw materials. And the same force that leads most of us to outsource our food processing (very broadly meant - do you scrub the dirt off your own vegetables?) come into play: how we value our time.

None of that means I'm denying fab tech won't or can't be important. It's just some ideas on the forces that will play a role in its development. It will be very interesting to see what happens in developing countries. Jacobs writes brilliantly about places that end up unable to get hold of spare parts because they haven't developed the kind of organic production structure capable of providing them. Friends just back from Malawi tell me a sugar factory there has stopped for precisely this reason. Could 3D printing leapfrog these problems, or at least provide a different order of flexibility?

On raw materials, too, Jacobs' 1969 book has another prescient idea: 'the metaphor of the waste-yielding mine':

In the highly developed economies of the future, it is probable that cities will become huge, rich and diverse mines of raw materials. These mines will differ from any now to be found because they will become richer the more and the longer they are exploited. [110]

Perhaps it's possible that new fab-tech will have a role here too: dreaming again, but imagine a computer-controlled waste facility able to efficiently extract for local use. At least some percentage of the raw material problem would be addressed, and places would start to look even more like dense ecosystems squeezing every drop of efficiency out of materials passing through it.