Will 3D Printers Save the World?

3D Printing & Imaging
Will 3D Printers Save the World?

3D Printed Toilet

3D printers have exploded in popularity with promises of reinventing everything from manufacturing to entrepreneurship. While 3D printing has a few detractors and people who point out that it won’t live up to the hype, I believe 3D printing   will actually do more than reinvent the way we design and build things. Ultimately, I believe it will dramatically improve lives in 3rd world countries by empowering everyone to improve their own lives.

This is why re:3D got my attention. They are creating a large format printer designed to work in developing countries that typically lack the infrastructure we take for granted. The company has been accepted into Startup Chile, a program run by the Chilean Government to encourage innovative entrepreneurs to launch businesses in Chile. They have also successfully raised over $100,000 with their Kickstarter campaign. Their goal, to do good while making a profit, is the cornerstone of social entrepreneurship and their mission is to revolutionize the way products are made all over the world.

Social entrepreneurship has long been focused on the Bottom of the Pyramid. This is the term applied to the largest (but poorest) group of people on the planet living off of $2.50 per day (All 4 billion of them). Selling shoes or laundry detergent in developing nations is one thing. Selling an advanced personal factory is quite another.

3D Printing Will Save Lives

The small build area of most consumer grade 3D printers makes it impossible to print truly useful objects for people who lack even the most basic of amenities…like toilets or a rain bucket. These are objects we take for granted that many people only dream of. This is the main reason re:3D is designing a large format printer that could ultimately accept recycled plastics. Landfills are overflowing with plastic and building a “complete solution” designed to take waste and turn it into useful objects has three benefits.

  1. Most important, allowing a village to print out basic household objects that we take for granted will have a HUGE impact on their lives, health and wellbeing.
  2. The feed stock will be available for cheap (and possibly free).
  3. It will reduce waste in places that typically have very little (if any) environmental regulations.

Seriously? How will printing a toilet change the world? According to UNICEF, a lack of toilets is one of the leading causes of juvenile death. When I say “developing nations” I’m not talking about countries that only have basic cable and lack wifi. I’m talking about places where hygiene is still a big issue.

Improving the Local Economy

Affordable 3D printing will also help locals build micro-enterprises to sell products both locally and internationally. While the growing middle class in Chile will easily be able to afford one, a farmer living off of $2.50/day will not. This is where micro-lending becomes important.

In order to overcome this obstacle, the company is considering micro loans to help finance 3D printer purchases. In turn, the owner turned entrepreneur will start selling the wares she printed to finance the purchase. Micro-lending in developing nations has been credited with raising standards of living and empowering women. To date, most micro-lending has been geared toward businesses like goat herding or sewing. Imagine the possibilities when tied with 3D printing using cheap (or free) recycled plastics.

Culture Differences Are Important

Beyond the obvious differences such as lack of infrastructure or language barriers, there is one major (and very important difference)…culture. Failure to understand and work with the local culture will ensure failure. For example, the culture in Chile where re:3D is launching, is very focused on relationships. Who you are is just as important as what you’re selling. People in Chile will take the time to get to know you and will want to share ideas. This can be a huge culture shock to result-oriented Americans who tend to come “blazing in” absolutely convinced they have the right answers.

Developed nations like the United States have a lot of innovative ideas and products that can radically improve lives in the bottom of the pyramid. But these benefits can only take hold if the products are accepted by the community. Entering a market with the right mindset and a willingness to work within the cultural and social norms of that country will go along way in helping that happen.

What do you think?

Do you think 3D printing will change the world? Or is it just hype? Let me know in the comments below.

Stephen is a rocket scientist with an MBA researching how the maker movement is revolutionizing our world. For more info check out Stephen Murphey’s blog.

56 thoughts on “Will 3D Printers Save the World?

  1. Jose Gomez-Marquez says:

    3-D printing is a fantastic technology, but the developing world will need a lot more than free filament and large volume builds to create what it needs. Spend a month there and you will find that it’s not just about the tooling, it’s about finding the local ingenuity and nurturing it. For a well researched tome on the topic, I’d suggest looking at Steven Daniels’ Making Do: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/08/african-tech-makers-selections-from-the-new-book-em-making-do-em/62143/

    1. Stephen Murphey says:

      Good point, it’s not about just bringing in a cool new product. You have to nurture and educate them to use it effectively based on their particular needs and resources.

      1. lei says:

        Hi , I would like to introduce a new high speed 3D printer DLP machine and low cost UV resin that will really change the world. It is now funding on Indiegogo, you can go to check it :https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/nautilus-3d-printer-dlp-tech

        1. tamam says:

          dear lei,
          have you email adress?
          i would like to order 3d machine.
          can you tell us, where i can order the machine

  2. David Rysdam says:

    3d printers are neat and poor people definitely need help, but “will help the 3rd world” is the “won’t somebody think of the CHILDREN” of the tech world.

    1. Stephen Murphey says:

      Fortunately “social entrepreneurship” is still about making a profit which reduces the need to make those kinds of requests. It will be interesting to see if the model works and is 1) sustainable and 2) scalable. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Andy in Tucson says:

    Inasmuch as the 3D printers are by no means “free” or even “cheap,” I think that most of what’s said above is a pipe dream. It sounds utopian and great, but spend five minute to actually _think_ about the problems!

    These countries need clean water supplies and proper sanitary sewer infrastructure — using a 3D printer to make a toilet is irrelevant if the toilet doesn’t go to a sewer!

    1. Stephen Murphey says:

      But it’s a start, and every little bit helps. Are 3D printers a magic bullet? Not at all. Could they give people the tools to build their own toilet (and infrastructure to hook that toilet up)? Absolutely. It won’t happen overnight though. Thanks for your comment.

      1. Andy in Tucson says:

        Stephen, you are remarkably myopic. WOW! 3D printing will eradicate poverty and clean up corrupt governments and empower people!

        Really, you should tag along on a Doctors Without Borders or Peace Corps unit and see the third world with your own eyes. The MSF or PC folks would bristle at the suggestion of supplying 3D printers TO PEOPLE WHO ARE STARVING and say that it’s, to use the vernacular, “the stupidest fscking suggestion ever.” And it is.

        1. Stephen Murphey says:

          How so? I’ve never claimed 3D printing is a magic bullet. I also never said it will be easy nor happen over night. So myopic….not all sir. Optimistic? Yes.

          Glad to see you’re adding sensationalism to your post…don’t believe I mentioned anything about cleaning up the corrupt governments. But I digress.

  4. jeffersonian says:

    You’re talking about places where basic irrigation, roads, and sewage are sorely lacking. (At least, if you’re using “3rd world” in the colloquial sense, i.e. the poorest countries, not countries that were neutral in the cold war).

    Have a think about why this is. We’ve had the technology to make proper roads, sewage and irrigation systems for thousands of years. We’ve also got more than enough money in foreign aid. Now think about how the problem might be massively more complicated than “lack of stuff that makes stuff”.

    Most people in the 3rd world will NEVER own anything as expensive as the most inexpensive 3D printer. Thousands will die today for lack of basic things that cost 1/1000th of the cost of a 3D printer; basic vaccinations, clean water treatments, mosquito nets.

    Furthermore, do you really think a 3D printed toilet is more cost efficient than a mass produced one? 3D printings primary strength is rapid prototyping, not cheap mass production. For that traditional methods such as plastic injection molding, metal forming/stamping, forging and casting still reign supreme.

    Toilets/buckets do not need to be custom made. If you’re making thousands of the same thing (i.e. anything that might be mass produced), specialized tooling will always be more cost/time efficient. Your average bucket probably costs a few pennies to mass produce. Assuming 3D printing can even match that price, how many buckets would a 3D printer have to make before it breaks even? That’s assuming of course that the cost of maintenance wouldn’t completely eradicate any profit it would make, which it certainly would since you can buy thousands of buckets for the cost of one decent stepper motor. Also bear in mind that it probably takes the fastest 3D printer in the world 10x longer to print out a bucket than one could be injection molded, and would almost certainly have inferior mechanical properties (less flexible, carries less weight etc) due to the material/mechanical limits of additive fabrication, and the advantages of injection moulding.

    The problem in the 3rd world (i.e. Africa) isn’t a lack of plastic widgets or toilets, or even machines, but dire poverty stemming from systemic mismanagement of economies and infrastructure by corrupt governments and indifferent and exploitative foreign interventions.

    tl:dr – OP makes a completely frivolous and uninformed attempt to co-opt 3rd world suffering to big up 3D printing, which is essentially a toy for rich people who like to feel creative but don’t want to bother learning machining.

    1. Joe McKay says:

      I was composing a response in my head when reading this article. You nailed it. thanks!

    2. David Rysdam says:

      Oh man, I wish there was a way to give the screen real estate devoted to my comment to you. You said it all much better, especially the last paragraph.

    3. Stephen Murphey says:

      Really well thought out comment and while I don’t agree with everything you said (especially that I’m making a frivolous attempt to “big up” 3D printing). You do have some interesting points. 3D printing by itself won’t solve 3rd world problems…especially while they’re so expensive.

      But costs will come down and if they can use indigenous materials that are free or amazingly cheap…that will help them build the infrastructure they don’t have. While lack of toilets (and clean sanitation) does not in itself cause poverty…it does lead to sickness and death which makes it that much harder for a country to dig itself out of poverty.

      That is just one example, the reason I chose toilets for this article was because that is not typically something you would 3D print (currently too large, too expensive and we can pick them up at the store in the developing world). Mass production IS important, but only if you have access to what’s produced. If you can’t afford one or have access to even get one if you could…mass production being more efficient is irrelevant.

      1. Andy in Tucson says:

        “But costs will come down and if they can use indigenous materials that are free or amazingly cheap…that will help them build the infrastructure they don’t have.”

        I cannot fathom how one can possibly build a sanitary-sewer infrastructure using a 3D printer. Have you ever seen a sewage treatment plant? Do you understand the meaning of the term “infrastructure?”

        While we’re at it, why not 3D print a power plant! And the fuel necessary to run it! Oh, wait, centralized power plants are not cool. So let’s 3D print some solar panels!

        Oh, and regarding the “indigenous materials,” pray tell what materials are you talking about? Can they really recycle plastics into the right sort of material that can be used by the printer? Are you going to 3D print a plastics-recycling facility? That sounds absurd, but _think it through_.

        And, “while lack of toilets (and clean sanitation) does not in itself cause poverty…it does lead to sickness and death which makes it that much harder for a country to dig itself out of poverty.”

        Lack of toilets is a but a symptom of the problem. They don’t have toilets because they don’t have sewers, or even workable septic systems. They don’t have sewers because they don’t have the money to build them. They don’t have the money to build them because the governments in those countries are either non-existent or corrupt. Well-meaning NGOs can bring in the supplies and the money and build the infrastructure but at some point the systems have to be run by the locals, and too often the equipment and plants are stripped and the parts are sold off, sometimes to buy food, often to buy arms …

        I didn’t really mean to turn this into a geopolitical discussion, but seriously, the whole notion of dropping some high-tech kit into an impoverished area is laughably absurd.

        1. Stephen Murphey says:

          Andy…I seemed to have touched a nerve with you. While not intentional, I am glad for your comments because you bring up some really exceptional points that should be addressed if we ever hope to solve these problems.

          You mentioned: “I cannot fathom how one can possibly build a sanitary-sewer infrastructure using a 3D printer.” and honestly I don’t know what it would look like either but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or that we shouldn’t ask the question.

          “indigenous materials,” pray tell what materials are you talking about? -Initially plastics (thanks to landfills), but other 3D printers are looking into using sand and cement (useful for housing…I’m not suggesting a sand toilet).

          Can they really recycle plastics into the right sort of material that can be used by the printer? – that is what they are trying to solve.

          Are you going to 3D print a plastics-recycling facility? – I never claimed you would nor why you would need to.

          Based on your comments…it seems like you have a lot of valuable experience in this area. Maybe you could reach out to re:3D to discuss these issues. Sincerely….I’m glad that you’re really trying to do what’s best for developing nations and as you mentioned…the problems are huge. I’m sure they could benefit from your knowledge.

          Thanks for your comments.

  5. paperfiction says:

    Have you ever used a 3d printer that hasn’t broken down regularly? They are high maintenance, expensive toys. There are far cheaper, easier and more practical ways of making buckets.

    This is like suggesting we send laser cutters to “3rd world countries” so people can make engine gaskets.

    1. Stephen Murphey says:

      Good point. My above claims only work if it’s reliable. If not then it will be as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

    2. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      Believe me, there are reliable 3D Printers out there (pretty much anything Stratasys and Objet make), but they’re still very expensive. Thanks to the insane rate at which this industry is growing, I doubt it will be more than a few years before consumer machines can match where they’re at now, in terms of reliability and precision.

  6. Chrisw says:

    3D printing has promise, but has little practical value for most people. And even less value for the poor.
    I didn’t build an Altair 8800 computer in the 70’s because I knew that I had no practical use for it. I read all the Popular Electronics articles about it and took classes in computer science, but didn’t buy a PC until the WWW came along.
    When they make a printer with all the capabilities of a machine shop at a much lower price, I’ll consider getting one.

    1. David Rysdam says:

      And in fact, the reverse is true. In the past 12 months, I’ve made a mini machine shop in my basement. I got a lathe and a mill, both used old American iron in good shape and with good capacity (esp the lathe) for a combined total of under $2000. Along with that came a bunch of accessories, tooling and stock material. I’ve also invested in some additional tools and material.

      That’s about the same price as a 3D printer that can do much, much, MUCH less. Some will tell you that learning the machine trade is a long learning curve, but it’s really not that hard. And the toolchain is shorter and less fragile than for 3D printers, where you need to know a variety of technologies and learn them in the abstract (e.g. modeling and software, where you can’t get your hands on anything in any intuitive way).

      The really ironic thing is that to make a 3D printer, you need access to a machine shop (either for yourself or via retail). Machine shops don’t need 3D printers.

      1. Dale Dougherty says:


        That sounds like a good story for our blog. Would you might telling us more about your process of setting up a machine shop? I’m also interested in your comment about how you developed the requisite skills and craftsmanship.

        I’ve been advocating that makerspaces in schools and libraries not get fixated on 3D printers but instead create a focus on making using the most affordable tools and materials available. I believe that getting started — and often machine tools are available for next to nothing — is the real goal. New tools can be added but in many cases, basic tools and materials — and the experience of making — is foreign to lots of people.

        1. David Rysdam says:

          That sounds like a good story for our blog. Would you might telling us more about your process of setting up a machine shop? I’m also interested in your comment about how you developed the requisite skills and craftsmanship.

          You mean as a comment here? Quite a few years ago, I had various ideas for stirling engines and things like that. I tried building out of pipes and paint buckets and whatnot, but “found materials” aren’t an ideal engineering material. You don’t want to constrain your search space to things you can make out of the plumbing section at Home Depot. I was spending most of my brain capacity trying figure out how to hook off-the-shelf parts together, rather than figuring out the best design for my invention.

          Once I knew what a lathe was, I knew that’s what I wanted. But I couldn’t afford it until recently. However, I read lots of books, watched videos and so forth. Eventually, I was ready to buy. I even had the exact make and model I was going to order…and I stumbled across one that was slightly larger, came with tooling and a nice (all steel) bench and cost less than the one I had my eye one (far less than the same capacity would have been). 1956 Southbend 10″x4′.

          I’d never done even a tiny bit of machine shop work before, but I plunged in and cleaned it up. The Southbends in particular are ubiquitous and there’s plenty of help online on what to do for various problems or missing parts, how to keep it in trim and so on.

          In 2-3 weeks of evenings, I had it running. After the first few cuts, I was full of questions. Went back to my books and videos, understood what they were talking about this time, was able to do more than before. That’s the real key to learning any new skill. Get some info, attempt to apply it, evaluate the result. If it falls short or is insufficient, go back to step 1.

          I’ve made a few small, simple engines (wobblers, finger treadles) by now. This is less than a year after laying hands on my first metal lathe ever.

          But I also had my eyes open for a mill, because while you CAN do milling on the lathe it’s a bit of a hassle. This time I didn’t even consider buying new. In the last year, I’ve seen various bits of tooling imported from China to know that it’s really sub-par, at least at the hobbyist $ level, and that’s where most of the new machine tools are being made these days. Don’t waste your money buying the cheapest new. Buy yesteryear’s mid-level used for the same price. A nice mill turned up on Craigslist. 1950s Benchmaster vertical mill.

          I knew just enough about machine tools in general and mills in particular now to tell that this one was in good shape. (It’s completely manual, so basically make sure the ways look good and the backlash isn’t enormous. And you can probably fix the latter using your lathe.) Came with even more tooling, a super nice bench with drawers and tons of stock.

          I’ve just been starting the “learning iteration” on the mill and it’s going great. Again, books (especially older books that cover this kind of machine) and videos are the key. Find your local model engineering club or some other niche of old machinists and ask them questions. Try stuff. Unlike with most software, mechanical machines, especially manually-operated ones, will tell you if you are doing it wrong.

          Those operations you’ve seen in the videos and books? Try them!

          Attempt 1: Wow, this is harder than it looked.
          Attempt 2: Wow, this is easier than it was last time.
          Attempt 3: Wow, why isn’t everyone doing this? It’s so much easier.

          I’m finding that it’s less about knowing how to operate the machine (there’s only 3 handles on each, after all) and more about freeing your mind to realize some crazy way to hold the work or order of operations to make it all come out how you want.

    2. Stephen Murphey says:

      Great analogy…the first computers weren’t very useful. But now we have cheap & advanced computers in our pockets. Interestingly, I found this article from a while back talking about how Android Smartphones are becoming popular in developing countries: http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/technolog/cheap-android-phones-dominate-developing-world-157805

      This wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago. Thanks for your comment.

      1. Andy in Tucson says:

        Oh, my, $150 smartphones for people whose annual incomes barely approach $1000 (do the math: $2.50 a day times 365). Don’t forget the usages charges!

        I think when you say “smartphones are becoming popular in developing countries” you left off the part about “popular among the rich elites in developing countries.” It’s great that these technologies are becoming more widespread and less expensive, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

        1. Mark says:

          Having spent a fair amount of time working in various informal settlements in Africa and having lived my whole life in various parts of Africa, I can comfortably tell you that smartphone penetration is a significant thing in these areas, and only growing. There is generally no fixed line access, and people no matter there situation have the need to communicate with one another. It is exactly the same as the rest of the world, the youth are driving this, the amount of times I have been hanging around with kids who live in a single room shack with 5 family members but have a hundred dollars worth of smartphone in their pockets is astounding. These give people access to email, and communication apps that allow them to easily sidestep expensive voice calls, and as everyone is pay as you go this is the only access you can get without a fixed address. Cellphones and the smartphones that are replacing them facilitate peoples ability to gain access to work and stay in touch with friends and family in an economically attainable way. This is actually why blackberry and android have remarkably high market penetrations in South Africa as an example, a cheap android handset gets you access to Whatsapp, and Blackberry has a pay as you go uncapped internet access setup, for about $5 a month you get unlimited internet access and messaging. That is a massive thing.

          I think everyone is responding far to drastically to the article about 3D printing, no it is not a fix all solution for infrastructural delivery failure but has the potential to go there at some point. It is not about printing miles of pipeline to establish a sewer network, it is about having the capacity to produce a hinge for that one valve that has broken rather than waiting two months for a government representative to read a notice and send someone down to have a look at it and then spend another 6 weeks waiting for a part to be delivered as the setup was installed by a German NGO with parts only available in Europe. This is about creating flexibility in peoples lives to respond to situations that are not easily predictable in remote and under-serviced areas. This is about local economic development strategies, some of the local machining work being done in back yards with a file and a hammer would astound people. Local setups that allowed shared or rental access to not just printers but CNC machines, lathes and various power tools could have a massive impact on communities. Lowering the amount of initial capital needed to start a business through shared resources like this has as much relevance here as it does in the states. No 3D printing is not the be all and end all of this, but it has the potential as a useful and flexible tool which is exactly what people in the developing world are most in need of, it makes absolutely no sense to shoot it down as a wild idea that is the whim of people obsessed with technology. This is an additive tool in operation and in its positioning, it is a component in a larger strategy. Just because people are thinking about ti does not mean they are ignoring other problems. But a unified access to knowledge and manufacturing techniques does everyone good. The day when for a dollar or two a family can go down to their local machine hub and print out a simple mosquito trap or stand designed to hold a candle and extinguish it when it is knocked over, and make there own changes and innovations that area then easily scanned and shared with people all over the world, that is a magical thing and has an amazing role to play in helping ease peoples burdens and empower them.

  7. raster says:

    If I just stick to answering the question “Do you think 3D printing will change the world?” then the answer is yes… yes it will. It’s already started and it’s only going to keep changing our world.

    1. Dakota says:

      I see the question as will 3D printers SAVE the world. My answer would be no. Technology is great and it in itself someday will save the world by curing cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and many other diseases that kill people all over the world. But making some plastic toilets and buckets in 3rd world countries may be a start, but not the cure. So sorry 3D printers you are not the supper technology hero we are waiting for.

      1. shaaronie says:

        I read an article last night where they have created a 3d machine that makes copies of food, and a useable prosthetic hand and even mini human organs. Give it a few months. This is huge!

      2. derikkrauss says:

        You need to check out http://www.organovo.com/. 3D printing may save more lives than you think.

    2. Stephen Murphey says:

      Will 3D printing change the world? I would definitely agree with you that it already has. That would have been a much safer question to ask but I wanted to go for something that would get many interesting responses. And since 3D printing seems to have people in either the 1)it’s the best thing since sliced bread or 2)it’s over hyped and not going to deliver…

      I figured why not ask an extreme question. IE Will it save the world? Personally, I don’t know if it will or not. As many people pointed out…they are still expensive and unreliable. But so were computers and mobile phones when they first came out.


  8. Joe McKay says:

    I am very impressed with the majority of responses to the article. I hope Make is watching, because their love of all things 3D printer does not represent the ideas voiced in this thread by their readers – and at some point those readers are going to have had enough. The idea that the solutions to 3rd world problems are expensive, finicky printers it laughable. Is this the Onion? (The tiny toilet being printed in the image is hysterical … it’s a toilet for ants!)
    I have been to several Maker Faires, and it has been discouraging to watch the projects go from people creating interesting, innovative, funny and weird projects to a 3D printer expo where nobody actually MAKES anything, just shows off their nozzle size. Of course this is an over-exaggeration, but that’s certainly how it feels to be trending. Where’s the fire breathing giraffe, or the bike powered self-flagellation machine, or they guy who knits and drums at the same time?
    Somehow, 3D printing has become a sort of technological messiah for the Make community. This is curious, because Make was built on the idea of questioning the promise of technology. Perhaps this is no longer the case – between the article and the comments is a convenient link to the Maker Shed. Has Make devolved to the point that articles are designed to drive sales?

    1. Stephen Murphey says:

      Where has the bike powered self-flagellation machine gone….I would love to know. I can definitely understand your frustration…3D printing has become quite popular lately (for good or bad) and tends to over shadow the other cool stuff going on. You can consider this post a “poke in the hornets nest”…I wanted to ask a question that I knew would get people talking. After all, the best way to move forward as a community is to know what we’re thinking about and consider important.

      Do I think 3D printing will save the world? I’m not sure, hence the question. Maybe it won’t and in 10 years will all laugh about (or lament) the promise that could have been 3D printing. Or maybe by then, 3D printers will be as important as mobile phones in developing nations. Reality will probably be somewhere in the middle.

      As for your last question: MAKE did not ask me to write about 3D printing (nor was I paid to do so) and this article was NOT designed to drive sales. Rather it was designed to get people talking. That goal I can definitely say was successful.

      Thanks for your comment.

    2. Gareth Branwyn says:

      While it is true that we have more 3D printing coverage at the Faire, it is unfair to suggest that we no longer have the robotic giraffe, the human-powered vehicles, crafts, and other non-3DP/non-high-tech content. All of that stuff is still there, and more. Maker Faire content is growing, not shrinking, as is the diversity of that content. It is true that we’re doing a lot on 3D printing, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and other such technologies, because in general, our audience wants it.

      And quite frankly, yes, we do want to drive audience and sales. We’re a business. We’re trying to expand, to be successful as a company. We love what we do and we certainly love and believe in the maker movement, but for us to remain, to prosper and grow as a company, we need to drive traffic to the site, sell magazines tickets to the Faire, and sell products in the Shed. We’re not ashamed of that. We create products that we believe in, that we would buy. And, BTW, that Maker Shed box has been here on blog posts for going on several years now, so that’s not some new ploy.

      And just to clarify, MAKE’s mission was never to “question the promise of technology” per se (tho that’s a perfectly fine thing to do and we do publish articles that ask such questions — like this one). MAKE was (and is) about taking control of the technology in your life: understanding it, hacking it, teaching/sharing it, making it your own — “technology on your time.” That mission has not changed. And won’t.

  9. Stett Holbrook says:

    It’s easy to talk about “the poor” and “the third world” as if it was a homogenous bloc of people. But it’s not. While the number of those at the “bottom of the pyramid” is shamefully large, not all stay there. There is movement. Will a 3D printer make a difference for people for whom day-to-day survival is in doubt? Of course not. The poorest of the poor need clean water, food, and shelter. A dual extruder 3D printer would rank very low of a list priorities.

    But could we imagine a village-owned 3D printer or 3D printer co-op that prints practical objects to help extend the lives of tools or household objects (ceiling fans, hose gaskets, stove parts, etc…).

    True, that’s not quite saving the world, but it does make daily life a little better. And might a small economy grow out of such small-scale manufacturing and offer the possibility of socio-economic movement? Small wins in the lives of the world’s poor and poorest can add up to something meaningful.

  10. ric says:

    No… 30 years in industry and it found its niche in prototyping and high end manufacturing. But definitly will create a new industry with garage tinkerers again. Robomaker , Ponoko , Shapeways are already taking advantage of it . there’s still a lot of hype , the desolusionment stage will not hit anytime soon. hahahah

  11. Kris Edwards says:

    I don’t know about “saving the world”, but it will definitely change it…I don’t think its hype. It may take a decade or two, but we will enter the age of home manufacturing at some point and I can’t wait. I am already in the mindset of examining the things I use everyday and thinking of what I could make on my own at some point in the not so distant future. Perhaps I will throw some chess pieces I had printed into a contraption to be reprinted as flatware for some unexpected company. I think its truly revolutionary (back to the starting point). We may, once again, have homes which contain more homemade items than store bought.

  12. c1josh says:

    I will eat my 3-D printed hat when this technology helps citizens in the developing world.

    1. ric says:

      Lets not get crazy….. 3-D printers are not good for your digestion plus killing someones dream is not nice , lately when you talk reality you hurt people’s feelings.

  13. William Abernathy says:

    Back in the 1880s A guy named Otto invented an engine. It ran on all kinds of fuels, and he figured it would be dandy as a stationary engine for pulling water out of mine shafts. He had a friend, Daimler, who wanted to make it small enough to fit on a buggy, which he dismissed as hokum. In the short run, Otto was right. But as the years progressed, Daimler was proven right by a cat named Ford over in America.

    My take on 3-D printing is that it’s still in its “pre-Ford” era. I think it will have reaching effects, but it’s going to be a lot of years (maybe never) before there’s one next to the microwave in everybody’s kitchen. To its credit, additive machining enjoys certain efficiencies. After you pay for the machine and the raw material you don’t have any tooling costs, prototyping is by conventional machining standards insanely fast, and you have very little waste: you only use the material that goes into the part. This said, 3-D printers are very limited machines, and though the machines themselves and the technology that controls them advances at Moore’s Law speeds, material science does not move so fast. Hobby 3-D printers like the MakerBot and RepRap are great ways to make small things out of plastic. They cannot make such things fast enough or well enough to justify their own cost, unless you bring in old-fashioned mass manufacturing techniques. From a practical perspective, they are prototype engines and manufacturing centers for very expensive one-off toys.

    3-D printing promises custom one-off parts, which sounds great until you realize that they are made of inferior materials, without the benefit of craftsmanship. You get a cheap trinket that costs a lot and took too long to make. Perhaps the price will come down far enough and the quality of materials will improve enough to make home 3-D printing “pencil out,” but I’m skeptical. Will processing power and materials science make advances? Sure. But since the average person in our society can’t fix the common appliances around him, let alone assemble them from parts or design custom physical hacks, I don’t see how this is going to be much of a game-changer. At present, additive manufacturing makes great sense in high-value, high-stakes one-off and short-run applications, like medical devices and aerospace. I don’t think the average American or third-worlder is going to derive amazing benefit from this.

    But hey, maybe I’m just like old Otto, and 3-D’s killer app is just around the corner, waiting for Mr. Ford to unleash it on the world. Until then, I continue to practice my conventional machining and fabricating skills, which I find more satisfying, economical, and much more useful.

  14. Brian says:

    Although I find 3D printing fascinating – it seems to be more useful in prototyping and not mass production – rain buckets can be created much faster and cheaper using injection molding. Plus not everything can be made of plastic.

  15. Will says:

    I definitely think they will change the world. You can go from design to prototype in hours. They need to be affordable though and the thought of recycling plastic into them sounds promising. Personally I believe the world will be completely changed by this and that 3D printing is going to be commonplace eventually. And projects like re:3D should be going and helping all the 3rd world countries, if the printers are used used correctly

  16. Diana Gayle says:

    Hello. Much interesting debate here! I work for techfortrade in the UK – we support innovation in communication and manufacturing technologies to facilitate trade and alleviate poverty for the world’s poorest communities.

    Last year we ran a very successful challenge – the 3D4D challenge which aimed to find transformational uses for 3D printing that could deliver real social benefit in the developing world. You can find out more on our website about the winning project and the other finalists. Some very exciting work!

    We are in the process of designing the next challenge and other interesting initiatives in this very area. Feel free to follow us on twitter and facebook to hear more about these if you are interested. Many thanks!

  17. dianagayle says:

    Apologies forgot URL http://www.3d4dchallenge.org/

  18. DaveK says:

    I see a lot of excitement out there, as with anything new to the general public…but those of us that work in hi tech manufacturing a lot of this 3D print stuff, is old news. It’s another technology that will certainly add some enhancements to our world. Save the world all on it’s own? NOPE! in conjunction with other technologies already in use, maybe, but that’s just the tech side of things, in reality, I think saving the world is more about using environmentally friendly materials and maintaining order where mad men and dictators would like to rule. Can a 3D printer save us from N Korea? or other mad men? I doubt it. m.02

  19. David Sperling says:

    3D printers will definitely make a difference at how business and start-ups go about their initial manufacturing. As for helping 3rd world countries, it’s sounds great and there are definitely lots of applications but I don’t think it will be quite as easy as anticipated. Glad to see that they were able to use crowdfunding successfully. For other funding sources, visit YouveGotFunds.com

  20. Shaun Fogarty says:

    I have been utilizing 3-D printers for 15-20 years in product development environments and am very familiar with what they do, what they do well, and what they do not do well. There is an almost bizarre fixation on “3-D printers” (who coined the THAT utopian term anyway?) that defies common sense and seems to assume, for instance: The existing methodology for manufacturing a toilet, which is very simple, utterly reliable, wholly non-propritary, uses dirt cheap input materials, produces very robust parts, and is MASSIVELY SCALABLE, can somehow be improved upon by a delicate, relatively complicated, expensive, incredibly slow machine that consumes very expensive and often proprietary materials to produce a one off product that would be much more expensive and much less reliable that what is already widely available. Today in fact, a customer asked why I have chosen chrome molly steel sourced from the bicycle industry for product I’m working on when I could have “just used a 3-D printer”. I’ll spare you the answer, and suffice it to say- a 3-D printer was the wrong solution for the job. Which is true for almost every object that is going to be made in a number above 10 or so. This whole 3-D fever is rooted in some mash up of ignorance, social networking, lazy armchair planet saving, and some dim echoing memory of “the replicator” in Star Trek running amok. Yes, I’m saying rocket scientist from MIT is engaged in feathering the flames of ignorance- the answer to the utterly stupid question posited at the beginning of this invitation for a conversation, is NO.

    1. ric says:

      Some one let the cat out of the bag after 30 years but maybe all the hype might generate a few uses and ideas here and there ……. people don’t like to hear the reality they rather believe the hypsters.

  21. Damian says:

    3D printers are not the world’s salvation. What will be great about them is they will act as the springboard to nanofabricators aka Star Trek™ style replicators. The transition from centralized manufacturing is not best done with nanofabricators. People’s archaic notions of wealth and worth and value need 3D printers to shoehorn the popular realization that “What You Want Can Be Downloaded”. If it goes from the present way directly to desktop nanofactories people will just be too stupid with it. Most people can not fathom an economy that isn’t based on scarcity. How we transition is a very big deal.

  22. Bernhard V. says:

    3D printing will not save the world. Poor people in 3rd world countries will be the last people to profit from this technology.

    However, I believe one can confidently state that 3D printing will CHANGE the world. Just give this technology another 5-15 years and see how it transforms our society just like mobile phones did.

  23. James N says:

    What this comment board lacks (besides a generl sense of detached curiosity) is… the perspective of anyone from “the 3rd world”. See what they come up with. What’s to argue about? None of us knows what someone from Ghana will come up with. Tools don’t save the world or the people in it. Tools neutrally empower people to make some kind of change.

    As for the argument that 3D printers can’t compete with better production methods, don’t forget that those other tools were made by other tools.

  24. Rich says:

    Interesting to hear your thoughts.
    I would like to know if the OP has any experience in actual 3D printing?

    3D printing primary strength is its ability to rapidly produce (prototype?) one-offs, not large scale mass production. Custom medical implants is a perfect exmaple where I have seen 3D printing being applied; low quantity and difficult to produce with tradiotnal methods.

    The analogy being used regarding saving less economicly developed countries – epic hyperbole!

    Please dont tell me the technology just needs to mature, we have it in our power to help these countries now, how many mosquito nets or malria tablets do you think could be produced for the cost of a printer.

    Investment in infrastucture to grow themselfs out of povery is what they need, not a 3D printer.

  25. dianagayle says:

    Great to see these debates still rolling on! Do follow us @techfortrade on twitter and also on facebook to stay abreast of debates such as these. We would love to hear more about all your views in 3d printing and poverty alleviation – come join us! thanks

  26. cknich5 says:

    Reblogged this on NoCo Maker Faire.

  27. Ted Dibase says:

    While looking for my garage door broken spring solution, i come up with LGD Garage Door. They have the world class professionals. They returned my call within minutes and also don’t keep me waiting. They fixed the Garage Door and even took the time to adjust and lubricate everything so that it works as good as new. They are affordable too.

  28. Mojo says:

    Great article Stephen Murphey. Thanks for the share. Yes of course 3d printing will save the world in future if it saves lives if it is able to 3d print tissues for your own organs. At present, we can see artificial legs and hands made up of 3d printers. This is a huge achievement of this technology.

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I'm a geek who loves to build stuff. Spent a few years building space stuff, a few more helping entrepreneurs build businesses. Today, we have access to tools and resources unheard of 10 years ago...and we can use it for DIY space exploration. I think that's pretty cool...

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