The Wall Street Journal recently had a very interesting and thought-provoking article about the future of manufacturing in both this country and the world and the impact that 3-D printing, in all its forms, is having on the way we make, think about, and consume products. In many respects, the process of making things has really been driven for the last 50 years by the cost of labor (just like construction) and thus Asia (first Japan, then Korea, then China, and now places like Bangladesh) became the world’s factory floor. But with 3-D printing, labor becomes about the time it takes to design an object because the labor is to build it is essentially free. And in a world of global climate change, with expensive fuel and therefore expensive transportation, the ability to make things closer to where they will be used makes more and more financial sense.
And now that companies that GE are starting to really work on printing high-value and long-life items (like jet engine parts), how long will it be before many of the things we specify will be made on-demand and locally? People have been talking for a long time about the coming age of customization, but 3-D printing really means that as long as you can model it, any shape can be made and pretty soon, can be made out of anything you want (3-D metal printing is now common in certain industries).
All that said, I think the most interesting part of the article is the discussion of engineers at GE looking at ancient objects and animal skeletons because “centuries of making things under the constraints of old methods may have caused their predecessors to discard innovative structures simply because there was no practical way to produce them through milling or casting” (or other factory methods of production). We’ve seen this in architecture magazines for the last few years with high-end buildings, and even in our own work (think of Pat Cornelison’s design for the Rechler office building) where the problem wasn’t our imagination, but our ability to document the design in 2-D in a way that a contractor could understand and build from. When we finally are able to automate the construction process – and there are folks working on 3-D printing of buildings – what old constraints that are ingrained in our work will we have to discard?
It’s a lot to think about!