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Digital printing comes of age

April 10, 2012

I reckon this is pretty amazing: a digital 3D printer that’s almost cheap enough ($1,300) for home use. The economic implications of widespread use of these sort of things could be remarkable, cutting the need to ship low-end consumer products thousands of miles from China. With a bit of imagination you could almost see Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital coming true: a future world in which intellectual trade was paramount, where we traded bits not things, and where the physical shipment of goods drastically declined. The environmental benefits would be huge.

The Economist says that: “Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale.  It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”

The implications for developing countries wouldn’t be uniformly bad. In the small island developing states where I do a lot of my  work, distance is the primary obstacle to development. Trade is very costly when you’re a tiny group of fragmented atolls in the middle of the Pacific, like Kiribati or Tuvalu. People in these countries are quite often well-educated and could contribute the skills necessary for intellectual rather than physical labour. Collectively their populations are tiny so the direct impact would be minimal, but they serve as models for how the technology could benefit small, remote regions of the world.

Broadly, there’s a push toward education in many middle-income developing countries; certainly in East Asia. And like with all new technologies, many lower-income developing countries could leapfrog the old industrialisation model toward a new economy. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of crystal-ball gazing, not to mention having an allergy to the term “new economy”, but this is a technology that will surely change the world.

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