The article describes the history and concept of 3D printing, but then goes on to suggest that 3D printing is now being used for finished parts rather than simply prototypes. This could lead, they say, to mass customization and new forms of innovation. We agree.
They also postulate on the effects of widespread 3D printing, in which there is a "technological change so profound will reset the economics of manufacturing. Some believe it will decentralise the business completely, reversing the urbanisation that accompanies industrialization". We're not so sure about that, given that cities actually do have other advantages besides mere proximity to work. Nevertheless, the piece does cover the key issues of 3D printing: mass customization, intellectual property implications and social change.
We also listened to an audio discussion by the same Economist magazine in which they colourfully explained the basics of plastic and metal 3D printing, including terms such as "glue gun-like nozzle", "powder with beam", "domestic printer", "industrial backroom printer", etc.
They equated the current buzz around 3D printing with the computer craze of the 1970's, and lamented that it could be leading to an overly optimistic view of the technology. This, we know, often happens to newly introduced technologies - they get overhyped as people mistakenly believe they can solve the world's problems. They'll help, but not as much as imagined. They cite glorious pronouncements that 3D printing will help restore the West's manufacturing capability, but the truth is that the technology will help anyone's manufacturing capability, including that of the East.
The part we got thinking about was the 1970's buzz analogy. If you're old enough to remember those heady days when the primitive 8-bit computers of the day were put to work on previously impossible-to-solve problems. Anything was possible, and people imagined futuristic visions where computers were performing unbelievable science fiction-like tasks.
The funny thing is, those 1970 visions mostly came true. Look around you; we live in that world every day. It's real. It led, we now know, to the massive information industry we see today.
Where will 3D printing be in a decade or two?