By Xu Qifei
| The industry surrounding 3D printers is growing at a faster rate than ever. According to TIME, the industry is expected to grow 31% annually in the next few years, eventually generating $21 billion of annual revenue worldwide. New innovations and technological breakthroughs in the field surface constantly, and it is hard not to get excited for such a day in the future: a day when having a 3D printer in an average American household is as easy as owning a car, a day when we can customize products of our daily needs exactly to our liking, a day when old and broken stuff can truly be useful for us as resources and fixing our stuff takes no effort.
So just why would we want such a future with domestic production achieved by large-scale household installment of 3D printers? What will it look like? More importantly, how will it impact the environment, our economic structure, and the consumer culture? Will it bring us a more sustainable society? Will a new form of self-sufficient economy emerge?
One of the first things that we can imagine happening with such large scale domestic production is that it will encourage more sustainable products. If people are making their own furniture, tools, or other products in the household, it is entirely in their own interest to have the products as endurable as possible. In our current economy, consumers don’t usually choose the most endurable products often because they don’t have the necessary information for an accurate cost-benefit analysis. This wouldn’t be an issue in domestic production as people have all the information available to them, and they will much more likely choose to have sustainable products. Moreover, these products can still be reused as materials even after they fail, leading to much less waste and excess in consumption overall.
More sustainable and responsible practices of consumption and production will also take place, as a lot of the negative externalities we see in production nowadays will be internalized by households. This doesn’t just mean that households will limit their consumption because of the negative side effects of production in the community. The more subtle but potentially view-changing effect is that these pollution, waste and noise that every piece of product comes with will be immediately visible to everyone. The tangibility of these negative externalities that 3D printers bring to us can possibly change our consumer behavior or even the entire consumer culture.
Such a production model can also have an indirect positive impact outside of the United States, as it can possibly reduce the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor in the global south. The most intuitive domestic usage of a 3D printer is producing things of daily needs like clothes, tools, umbrellas, toothbrushes, or parts and so on, the production of which is commonly associated with cheap labor and environmentally exploitative factories in developing countries. It might no longer be a problem if there is no demand for such labor anymore.
With that all said, there is still a long way to go before this new domestic production model with 3D printing can become reality. However, even though the picture we painted here for a future with large-scale domestic production based on 3D printing technology might at first seem like a pipe dream, it shouldn’t seem naïve anymore upon further thoughts. If the technology is available, the transition would not be too hard, as the immediate availability and customization of products that 3D printers will enable offer huge incentives for household installment. Furthermore, this new production model goes hand-in-hand with urban farming and other advancements in the field of sustainable production, as they are all parts of a large maker movement which explores the possibility of a self-sufficient economy in a smaller community. This movement offers both short-term and long-term benefits to members of the society, and it could be our most pragmatic way to start making systemic changes.