People & Science

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20/10/2014

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You ain't seen nothing yet

3-D printing is coming, says Mark Stevenson

3-D printing is coming, says Mark Stevenson

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The science fiction author Philip K. Dick once said, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’

People & Science’s move to a fully digital format is another reminder of a reality that many people didn’t want to believe. There probably isn’t a record company or newspaper mogul in the world right now who wouldn’t love to wake up tomorrow morning and find the Internet had all just been a bad dream.

In 2000 the three top-selling albums in America sold nearly 26 million copies. Ten years later the top three albums managed fewer than 9.5 million copies. Are we listening to less music?

Kodak went bankrupt in the same year Instagram sold to Facebook for a $1billion. We’re not taking fewer photographs. For every dollar of advertising revenue newspapers are finding online, they’re losing ten in their print business.

Blockbuster closed its doors just as Netflix was advertising its own 13-part series starring Kevin Spacey for instant download.

Mere trailer

What all these stories share in common is that the traditional players lost control of the means of production and distribution. Today you can record, promote and distribute your own music. You can take photos on your phone and don’t need to wait for them to come back from the printers. Nobody went to Blockbuster for a night out, so when digital downloads came along we happily showed them the door.

But all that was just the cocktail sausage before dinner. If you thought digital was a big deal you’d better strap yourself in. Because the radical decentralisation and democratisation of innovation, manufacture and distribution we’ve seen in digital is but a trailer for what’s coming to the physical world.

3-D printing

The 3D printing company Makerbot recently announced its ‘Digitizer’ technology at the South by South West conference, an annual and hugely influential geek and arts festival held in Texas.

The Digitizer will allow you to scan objects in high-definition 3D and then print a plastic copy on their Makerbot 3D printer.

This is just the thin end of the wedge, but one that spells certain disaster for a whole swathe of toy companies. Already people are printing replacement car parts in metal and completely seamless dresses that go on show during Paris Fashion week.

The Open Source Ecology project is putting designs online for ‘a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts.’ The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany has a 3D printer that fabricates on the nanoscale at incredible speed.

Lee Cronin at The University of Glasgow has a design for a device that builds pharmaceuticals, while commercial bio-printers are already printing human tissue for implant or to test new drugs on.

Some organisations will get this, and really very few have an excuse not to. Like lots of trailers, the digital revolution told us many crucial bits about the main feature. When I work with organisations, whether it’s schools, corporations, investors or government it’s interesting to see which of them get it and which of them begin to mimic those famous three monkeys with their hands over their mouths, in the ears and covering their eyes.

But reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

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Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson is a writer and comedian and founder of the League of Pragmatic Optimists www.leagueofpragmaticoptimists.org
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