Blogs & Comment

3-D printing gives everyone a chance to be the next Edison

That’s good news for society as a whole

Makerbot 2014 lineup of 3D printers


Manufacturing technology is evolving rapidly. Technologies like 3-D printing and production concepts such as mass customization are allowing the kinds of changes in manufacturing not seen since the industrial revolution. And those changes are ethically important. These modern technologies promise significant increases in the speed and efficiency of many kinds of manufacturing, and are already allowing increasingly tailored products to heighten consumer satisfaction. There are of course worries about the uses to which some of these technologies will be put. Much has been made of the possibility of 3-D printed guns, for example, and the fact that many people will soon have the ability to 3-D print consumer products at home has intellectual property lawyers watching very carefully.

But there’s another ethically important aspect of this revolution in manufacturing, and that’s the promise it holds to bring to a broader population the ability to make stuff. The desktop PC and computer-aided design software has for years now put the basic tools of design into the hands of millions. But actually making stuff—creating prototypes, holding your invention in your hand—has until recently been a privilege reserved to relatively few. Today, 3-D printing and on-demand computer-guided fabrication mean that just about anyone with a computer and an idea can see that idea take form, quickly and cheaply. This is a radical change.

What these technologies promise is nothing less than the diffusion and decentralization of the fundamental tools of design and production. While the 20th century saw massive corporations build vast factories to churn out the products of an elite class of industrial geniuses like Edison and Ford and Jobs, the 21st century is more likely to see what we might loosely call the democratization of design, production and, ultimately, innovation, as the means of technologically sophisticated design and manufacturing become widely available.

This is a point that Chris Anderson emphasizes in his 2012 book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Anderson points to the example of his own grandfather, an inventor who struggled through the long process of tinkering, building a prototype, acquiring a patent, and eventually—necessarily—licensing his idea for a new, smarter lawn sprinkler to a big company with the manufacturing capacity to turn his invention into a consumer product. Those days, Anderson argues, are gone. Today, someone with a good idea can relatively easily acquire the tools for rapid prototyping and for consumer-grade production. No factory is required. The bottleneck is gone. And while Anderson clearly sees this democratization as a good thing, he doesn’t focus explicitly on its ethical significance. That ethical significance is two-fold.

First, the democratization of innovation is good for those who make use of these new technologies. As a matter of economic and creative freedom, it is good to know that large numbers of people are being empowered to create and to build. No longer do creative types need to be beholden to those with the vast quantities of capital required to build factories and to hire armies of workers. The means of production, if you will, can be in the hands of the workers. If you can dream it, you can build it.

Second, the democratization of innovation promises to be good for society as a whole. It promises to unleash the creative power of an an entirely new generation of would-be inventors and entrepreneurs, and eliminate the cost barrier that has heretofore existed between good ideas with production capacity. Society will benefit from seeing the tools that truly enable productive creativity put into the hands of many, many more bright individuals.

So we should continue to watch carefully the increasing quality and diminishing cost of these new manufacturing technologies. There will of course be risks, but there will also be benefits. And enabling a new generation of creative geniuses and would-be entrepreneurs is far from the least important.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education and Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management