12 January 2013

3D Printing: Possibly a Fundamental Change to the Economy?

Both NPR in general and their podcast Planet Money (story here) have had numerous stories recently about the newish technology of 3D printing.  These printers are essentially duplicating machines a la Star Trek that use raw materials (matter) to create objects by running computer programs and essentially assembling complex objects by combining raw materials based upon computer programs.  The hope for development is that this technology will eventually be able to make organs, bones, etc. as well as complicated manufactured goods.

Health and well being implications aside, I found something remarkable in the Planet Money podcast.  They  mentioned that the 3D printing technology will dramatically lower barriers to entry in manufacturing, as the machines are not terribly expensive.  They of course (and are still in their early stages) cost thousands of dollars, but no millions of dollars. Even more remarkable in the story there was an open, honest and unabashed reference to Karl Marx.  The argument made is that in modern manufacturing the steps from prototype to producing for the market will no longer require massive capital investments just to start out. It could become possible to start a manufacturing firm with just the investment in a 3D Printer.  I couldn't believe my ears hearing Planet Money openly state that "to some degree this innovation of modern capitalism has the potential to put ownership of the means of production into the hands of the masses".  Essentially manufacturing capital could become accessable to a "middle class" member of society.  Using another definition of class, members of the proletariate may be able to afford high technology capital for manufacturing start up.  

I'm not suggesting that there is a major shift in class structure coming immediately out of 3D printing, there will still be owners and workers, and exploitation  present,  I don't think this means the end of capitalism or anything that dramatic, in the world of 3D printing, but the key point made in the story, was one common in  classical Marxism: Ownership of the means of production in highly developed manufacturing could become much more wide spread, thus less concentrated in the hands of the very wealthy.

If nothing else, I see some potential here for a reduction in the massive (and worsening) wealth inequality problem in the developed world. Our massive inequality problems stem in part from a system in which massive amounts of capital are required to start any kind of new product launch.  Is it possible that with 3D printing  that capitalism entrepreneurship  has innovated a product that will put ownership of the means of production into the hands of the masses?  Probably not...but it is a very intriguing idea!


Anonymous said...

And political revolution as well: http://millenniumjournal.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/rumpala-additive-manufacturing-as-global-remanufacturing-of-politics.pdf

James Miehls said...

thanks for sharing this!

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