Will the RepRap machine bring a new manufacturing and the end of consumerism?

RepRap 'Mendel' machine
The RepRap machine. Photo: Adrian Bowyer

The RepRap machine. Photo: Adrian Bowyer

3D printing machines such as the 'RepRap' already allow people to design and 'print out' products at home. Could this be the beginning of the end for traditional, capitalist manufacturing?

Little Maddy is furious. Her face has gone bright red from holding her breath, multiple dried lines of tears on her plump toddler face.

Maddy is in the throes of a tantrum because she can’t wear her favorite pair of shoes. She’s outgrown them. Her mother has repeatedly bought the same pair of shoes as she’s grown older - there are now four pairs in a box in the basement - but Maddy is now too big for the style. What’s a mother to do?

Maddy’s mother calms her daughter, and heads to her computer. She downloads the shoe specs from the shoe company’s website onto a memory stick, takes the old shoes and some empty plastic bottles from the recycling bin and heads to the techshop that’s just opened on the high-street. It has a 3D printer available for public use three days a week, and can turn a new pair of shoes ‘while-u-wait’.

Coming to a future near you...

This is the intermediate future, according to Dr Adrian Bowyer, of the University of Bath’s Innovative Design and Manufacturing Research Centre. Bowyer was one of the principle contributors to the RepRap open source project. RepRap is an innovative 3D printing machine that’s not only capable of almost completely replicating itself but also building its own extension modules. The machine was developed through the mutual effort of a community of users - any user can innovate on the design, and share it on the community’s website.

Bowyer imagines the day when we will have 3D printers in our homes. The intermediate stage he says, is akin to the corner photo printing shop.

‘When my child’s feet grow, I just take [her old shoes], run them through the shredder with a little bit of extra plastic and print out a new pair of shoes 1.1 times as big and the child has got a new pair of shoes that fit again.’

A new kind of factory

The proliferation of the technology will in time give startup entrepreneurs and individual consumers the ability to print 3D items at home, much in the way we print colour pages now.

Although the technology was initially limited to simply printing plastics, it can now also construct clay and ceramic molds for metallurgical use, and work with pastes that conduct electricity – a key step towards the ability to produce electronic components.

The end goal of the technology is that the RepRap and its ilk can entirely replicate themselves – at the moment, it can print the majority of its own parts, but not all. Bowyer is currently working on the plastic shredder head that will allow users to recycle plastic right now, and will probably use the RepRap machine itself to manufacture the part.

RepRap from Adrian Bowyer on Vimeo.

A new business economics

More than just a cool new bit of kit, the RepRap and machines like it offer a paradigm shift in the ‘story of stuff’. The technology nicely fits into the brave new green world we are entering, and demonstratest that it doesn’t have to be austere. Our notion of prosperity linked to economic growth could be turned on its head by the consumption shift that 3D printing machines offer: the ability to make, in a small co-operative business or at home, highly bespoke goods, to re-make or repair goods you already own rather than buying new - in essence, the creation of ‘guerilla manufacturing.’

Dr. Andre Reichel, a researcher at the University of Stuttgart is one of very few academics addressing ecological, low/non-profit manufacturing models.

‘Profit and growth need not be connected, because the only thing needed for a company… is to see that their revenue matches their [operating] costs. If they exactly match these costs, the economists say that they have a actual profit of zero. Everything else is nice to have and it’s just that: nice to have.’

It’s a radical idea: that a new economic paradigm will emerge in which the central idea becomes the product lifecycle rather than producing goods of just good-enough quality that must be replaced in their entirety every few years. For companies, this means switching to operating models of low-to-no profit. Reichel believes companies needs to think about what profits mean qualitatively - and how much profit is enough as economies move from primarily ones of scale to ones of scope.

Move over Marx...

Daniel Paterson, founder of ManufacturingChange.org (a social network that supports organisations aiming to bring about social change through manufacturing) has worked in manufacturing in both the developed and developing worlds and sees very clearly how 3D printing technologies have the potential to transform global consumption patterns. He believes that the traditional Marxist model of manufacture – which requires a capitalist’s 'capital' to get things started – will be challenged.

‘The capital question is much less when you start breaking things down. What happens when you have a local community making things for themselves is that they only make what is needed. When we need a new bicycle, we make a new bicycle, we don’t make a thousand of them and try and flog them to people,’ he explains. ‘So it’s inherently much more efficient and that is what will drive it economically, that’s what will take the switch from where we are now to open source space.

‘It’s all about appropriate technology. Use the right technology for the job at hand. If you’re going to go one kilometer away from your house, a car is not the appropriate technology - a bicycle is the appropriate piece of technology…. once you take into account the full value chain, it’s never going to be more efficient than doing things locally.’

Paterson sees 3D printing technologies, especially the RepRap project, as bridging that behavioural and practical gap towards appropriate technology.

Make do and mend

Bowyer gives another example of the technology’s potential for minimal input use. His daughter recently needed a repair to the grill plate on her car. She went to her local garage and was told that in order to repair the grill, she’d have to have an entire part replaced for a cost of £120. Defiant, Bowyer fired up the RepRap machine that sits in his spare room and printed out a simple bracket for the repair. ‘It took us about 20 minutes or a half an hour all together - less time than she’d taken to go to the garage - and fixed it up to the car. It cost about 10 pence and it’s still driving around with it today.’

Beyond making only what we need, 3D printing technology has the potential be more sustainable than conventional plastic manufacturing. Bowyer says that the primary feedstock used by the RepRap machine is a polylactic acid derived from biological materials. So not only is it biodegradable, but in the production process stores up CO2. Bowyer explains: ‘What that means is that you don’t even need to have transportation of the raw materials. Anyone with a few square meters of land can grow a plant crop and thereby produce the material that their machine requires.’

The importance of open source

This dream scenario for decentralised manufacture does require more than just raw material and clever machine: it needs a continued open source spirit and more free data.

Bowyer expects that the spread of RepRap-like technology will do to the patent what mp3 files did to copyright. ‘There’ll be an enormous exchange of information, such as shapes of brackets that are needed by people, and people will be able to share that sort of information over the web in the way that they currently share other information.’

How and if that information remains proprietary will, of course, become the subject of sore debate. Companies may well have to shift from manufacturing end products to simply producing saleable ‘blueprints’ for desirable products.

Reichel suggests that a new buzzword will find its way into business practice: sufficiency. ‘Sufficiency aims not at technological innovation but at behavioural innovation - so changing what people are actually doing, how they use a product, what kinds of products they’re actually buying. Or for companies what kinds of products they are really selling,’ he says.

Just enough

Sufficiency should have the knock-on benefit of seeing companies shift their focus to entire product life-cycles - it’s not a far stretch to see that for guerilla manufacturing, or even personal manufacturing, bits of product plans for repair can be made available for download.

Reichel’s suggestion of a sufficiency paradigm and product life-cycle focus can accomplish this, if companies are willing to re-envision manufacturing products so that they can be repaired at home by making previously proprietary information available to the consumer on the website - and manufacturing products in such a way that they can be easily repaired.

As to the full implications of 3D printers, we can only speculate. But it’s easy to see how 3D printing technology, especially 3D printers that can self-replicate and self-expand and work across different types of material inputs from plastics to clays to electrically conducting pastes may make it possible for anybody to be an entrepreneur. The paradigm shift may well be at hand; the RepRap technology, a catalyst.

Ann Danylkiw is a freelance journalist

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