The Future in 3D: How Micro-Manufacturing can Empower the Disenfranchised

When discussing all of the new possibilities presented by emergent technologies, and the social and ethical implications that they present, many futurists tend to fall prone to bias towards, well… the future. Perhaps not surprising and certainly not hard to understand- who wouldn’t be excited by the prospects of solving disease and aging, or making the wounded whole again, or solving the energy crisis and addressing material scarcity as the driving force of our existence? Compared to these distant (though not as distance as some might think) and grand ideals, talk of things like microeconomics and small business dynamics might not seem particularly scintillating. However, it remains an absolutely essential task, as only by demonstrating how our ideas and methods can address the practical needs and moral imperatives of the present can we ever hope to build popular, sustainable, and comprehensive support for a better, more ambitious future. The rise and proliferation of new micro-manufacturing or “3d printing” is one such practical, tangible example whose impact has only just begun to be felt, rife with new possibilities to foster in innovation and offer a particularly potent promise to disempowered communities and individuals.

There are already several forms/permutations of this technology coming into bloom (which we shall examine shortly) but the basic premise is simple: a 3-dimensional model/design is fed into a software application, and a computer guided, mobile platform oscillates back and forth, up and down, while a stationary extruder spits out the construction material (most commonly plastic polymers) until the finish product is rendered. As with most new technologies, early home/consumer models were fraught with kinks and glitches, and by all practical measure were little more than toys for the tech savvy and financial secure to entertain their friends by churning out kitch little plastic baubles then one could just as easily buy by the pallet-load from any sweatshop in Asia, under the current economic model… but this is beginning to change- quickly.

Consumer, plastic-fed models will soon be available for as little as three hundred dollars- not thanks to corporate investment, but crowdsourced funding. And as far as corporate retailers though, Staples has announced that they will be the first brick-and-mortar chain to sell and support this technology in their stores. For many of us, hundreds of dollars is still no small sum, to be certain, but one of the revolutionary aspects of this technology is that it is self-replicating! In other words, with the obvious exception of the electronic circuit boards and processor necessary to control operations, most of the other hardware components of a 3D printer could be built by- a 3D printer! Granted these models still remain limited in the materials one can ply and in the size of what can be manufactured, as per the size of the unit. Another thing to bear in mind is that if an inventor/designer chooses to make their schematics open-source (or, yes, for-sale), they can be shared and disseminated across the globe just as quickly and easily as a new song on an MP3 exchange.

The same principles used to manufacture smaller items in plastic are now being applied to larger projects- like concrete “printers” that could generate low-cost housing at an incredible pace while simultaneously driving down costs. There are also textile “printers” which can create garments of very intricate detail and design quickly and cheaply, right now with synthetic polymers, but plans for models that can process natural textiles like cotton or wool are also in the works. This application would be an example of one whose power and scope could reach far beyond the realm of microeconomic development. Instead of purchasing a cookie-cutter item of clothing off the rack of a large retailer with artificial markup, imagine instead being able to generate a virtual avatar to your exact physical dimensions from which you could choose materials, cuts, patterns etc and generate your own custom-tailored attire for roughly the same price.

I spoke to someone at a 3D startup in Chicago (a nexus of this emerging industry) who preferred to remain anonymous, but who was intent on developing software for exactly this purpose. Her particular motivation and emphasis is on aiding gender-variant and non-conforming peoples in purchasing fitted attire without having to subjective themselves to public hostility or derision, but consider the multitude of disenfranchised groups and communities (pretty much all of them, really) that have suffered psychological and cultural degradation at the hands of the fashion industry. By divorcing the business of making clothing from mass-marketing, consumerism, and top-down control, one empowers people all different varieties and personalities to organically generate and affirm their own conceptions of beauty, rather than having a contrived standard dictated to them by large interests with self-serving motives and cultural or institutional biases.

Low-costing housing is another exciting macro-scale application. Obviously, a printer large enough to construct a home is something outside of the means of the common consumer-but the products thereof most certainly are not. One company in China is using large printers that extrude fiber-reinforced concrete which can produce TEN 200-square-meter homes in a single day, which are then finished off with recycled wood, siding, and glass and will retail for 4,800 U.S. dollars.

Some may rightly point out, however, that possibilities such as these could have adverse ramifications, both locally and globally, on the market for lower-skilled manual labor- like textiles or construction, which of course are most commonly jobs held by people with disadvantaged backgrounds. It would be intellectually dishonest to try to deny that economic automation always has a negative impact on some individuals, and more often than not, those who can least afford it (although this will change as software programs begin to become more and more capable of taking on clerical work, logistics, and other middle-class, white-collar jobs as well). However, there is a vital distinction, in that previous forms of automation have only been within the capability of large entities, and so naturally all of the economic benefits thereof have redounded to the selective few who retain control of the means of production. The technology we are discussing now could reverse that trend- serving to spread both the potential benefits and detriment much more evenly across all of society and socioeconomic lines. With such equity established- it simply becomes a question of whether or not the potential benefits can outweigh the potential losses, and what can be done to mitigate the latter and aid those who are displaced from their livelihood through no fault of their own. With control of the means of production being more effectively democratized and dispersed, artificial inflation and monopolization will end and thus the savings, efficiency, and vast reduction of production costs will, for once, be passed on to the ordinary consumer, thereby also helping to ease the essential financial burdens of those who are adversely affected by automation, along with everyone else.

In addition to common consumer goods, this technology is also going to have an impact in the access that lower-income people have to higher-end technology. A quality, functional medical prosthesis commonly costs tens of thousands of dollars, but a carpenter in South Africa who found a new calling after an accident has begun manufacturing and selling durable, fully articulated, custom-sized hands for less than 2,000 dollars- and moreover has made all of his designs open-source so that anyone with their own printer can attempt the work themselves. Meanwhile, a young student in Turkey has put a new twist on the idea of 3D printed casts. Since they can be thinner than conventional casts, and don’t have to fully encase the injured area, either, the idea of using this technology to help set and and mend broken bones has been around for a few years, but Deniz Karasahin has developed a design that would allow leads to placed directly over the break or fracture that could channel a low-intensity ultrasound pulse which has been shown to promote bones to heal as much as 40% faster. Once again, the need for very precise and custom-tailored placement of the leads over the injury means that this increase in efficiency is an advantage that might only have been available to the affluent before, but may now soon be within easier reach for millions of people in an affordable format.

As long as we’re discussing medicap applications, I would chance to garner the animus of some friends and foes alike by naming what I consider to be the ultimate disenfranchised group in society- animals; sentient beings who quite literally cannot speak for themselves. For centuries, we have been forced to advance our knowledge of biology and organic chemistry through experimentation on other species- something that I myself have regarded as a grim necessity in spite of all my revulsion for it. What nobody should ever regard as “necessary”, however, is subjecting living creatures to such cruelty not for the sake of expanding knowledge and saving lives, but for the proofing of mere consumer goods like cosmetics or household cleaners or a litany of superfluous prescription drugs which may or may not treat any actual ailment and exist only to line someone’s pockets. In the coming decade, the application of 3D manufacturing to organic structures or “bioprinting” may serve to render this ethical dilemma completely moot, at the same time as it opens up whole new avenues of treatments for a variety of injuries and ailments that have otherwise been nearly unassailable.

The technology to raise cultures of undifferentiated stem cells and use them to replicate virtually any kind of tissue in the body has existed for many years- however until now this technology has only been useful as a research tool, and not a practical application. This is because, for all our newfound mastery of anatomy and genetics, much of this craftsmanship is still done manually, and the human hand and eye are completely lacking the level of intricacy, acuity, and detail necessary to shape a functioning circulatory and vascular system, which of course is vital to keeping any carbon-based organic structure oxygenated, alive, and functioning. Therefore, only small, thin layers of tissue have been able to be created and preserved under laboratory conditions for experimentation.

The modeling software for 3D printing, however, solves this problem perfectly. A “cellular ink” made of a conjunction of biopsied tissue, undifferentiated stem cells, and all the necessary materials for a particular biological system, can be extruded and shaped in like fashion to molten plastic or metal, being precisely layered (veins, capillaries and all) and configured into the necessary shape and form to encourage the undifferentiated cells to blossom into a fully functioning system. Preliminary testing is still only focused on partial samples for the time, but it may only be a few years before it’s possible to manufacture complete, functioning organs, and to do so using a patient’s own DNA in a way that completely negates the greatest risk to any current transplant procedure- the rejection of alien material by one’s immune system. It may still be some time before such advances are within reach for even the affluent, let alone those of limited means- but eliminating the problem of material scarcity from the transplant market will hopefully begin to go a long way towards making it -not- a market anymore. In the meanwhile, though, even the partial skin and tissue samples that are being generated and sustained in laboratories are not only suitable for supplanting animals in the testing of new drugs and other treatments, but indeed are a far superior medium, as they are human tissue rather than a mere approximation from another species. With luck as this technology proliferates, it will help to generating mounting political, economic, scientific, and moral consensus for ending the practice of experimentation on living things once and for all.

This is by no means a complete or comprehensive list of possibilities, as new and exciting applications for this technology are being devised and shared every day, all over the world, from all types of people. However proponents of this technology have all too often only focused on its most high-tech, “market oriented” applications, while some progressives have dwelled solely on their worry about 3D printed weapons (which have proven notoriously fragile and unreliable, anyway) and other potentially destructive applications (which can always be found for -any- new technology). The media has, of course, eagerly fueled such narrow and myopic conceptions. However, further examination and reflection will quickly lead one to the conclusion that 3D manufacturing technology will foster in microeconomic and scientific advances that can and should be made to benefit and empower the least among us as much as anyone. With the right investment, research, effort, awareness, and education, this new tool could come to serve as a flagship example of how the radical and aggressive application of emergent technologies could offer the means to elevate, enhance, and liberate all of humanity (and beyond), rather than a privileged few.

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