Will 3D Printing be Bigger Than Gutenberg?
More than 500 years ago, a little known blacksmith had a bright idea. Instead of making one plate to print an entire page, he decided to cut it into smaller pieces of one letter each. This meant that the letters could be reused and recombined to print other pages. Compared to today’s copier toner cartridges, the new innovation hardly seems worthy of being called extraordinary, but because the movable type made printing books far cheaper, it started a revolution that is still changing the world.
Another printing revolution is in the works. Recent developments in 3D printing could make it possible to produce physical objects as easily as inkjet printers create documents. It is already possible to produce highly complex shapes in a variety of different materials. Further development may allow 3D printing to make household objects or even sophisticated devices. So is it an overstatement to say that 3D printing could be a revolution as significant as Gutenberg’s moveable type press?
In Support of 3D Printing
It might be possible to dismiss 3D printing as a curiosity with limited application until you begin to think about the possibilities. Almost everything people currently buy could feasibly be printed, from food to clothing to the objects we use in household life on a daily basis. Many of these products are mass-produced thousands of miles away from where they are actually needed, shipped multiple times to different places, and somehow manage to find their way into our hands with all of the extra costs included. The ultimate in just in time inventory is for consumers to buy the intellectual rights for production, just before printing something for themselves. Technologists point out that the additive process wastes less of the raw materials than traditional manufacturing.
Even more revolutionary, 3D printing could allow the democratization of production, just as Gutenberg brought about freedom of information. If someone had a good idea for a new product, they wouldn’t need to seek venture funding or corporate acceptance; they could just create and sell the product themselves.
We live in a physical, 3D world. By necessity we use physical objects at every moment of our daily lives. What could possibly be more powerful than the ability to individually create the objects we use to better our daily lives?
In Support of Gutenberg
On the other hand, it’s hard to argue against the historical realities that made Gutenberg’s invention worthy of remembering. Mass-printing was significant because it drove a change in the fabric of society. Gutenberg managed to make volumes of information readily accessible to the masses for the first time. Gutenberg’s invention drove the renaissance, the scientific revolution, and indirectly even the technologies we use today. One example is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to “encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks”, named Project Gutenberg.
It’s true that physical objects are necessarily central to our daily lives, but a key difference between humans and other species is our ability to reason—to process information like what Gutenberg began making available. There is a real sense in which freedom of information, though abstract and intangible, might actually be more powerful than the freedom to create physical objects.
So which is it?
So will 3D printers trump Gutenberg? The truth is, we won’t know until it happens, and even then…500 years would be nice for getting some perspective. In the final analysis, perhaps such questions are better left for the historians… of 2500 and beyond.