By Neal Peirce
WASHINGTON -- There has been plenty of hype recently about the wonders of three-dimensional printing -- a fast-emerging technology that one day may be able to reproduce any object, from an instrument for sublime music (a Stradivarius violin) to a potential weapon of death (a bullet-firing gun).
But 3-D printing machines can do more than produce objects. They could change the future of the world's cities, perhaps dramatically. With 3-D, cities may well once again be the world's manufacturing workshops.
In a sense, 3-D manufacturing could take us back even further -- to echoes of village life in the pre-industrial era, when blacksmiths or seamstresses or carpenters created everything needed locally and towns were far more self-sufficient.
How could today's 3-D printing, still in its infancy, actually produce such startling change? And trigger change as profound as the steam engine, the light bulb, atomic energy, the microchip?
I rely on research by Banning Garrett, senior fellow for innovation and global trends at the Atlantic Council, by Thomas Campbell of Virginia Tech, by analysts at the National Defense University and several of their colleagues.
They show how once there's a computer file summarizing the 3-D layers necessary to create any object -- from a wrench to an iPhone -- the file can be transferred to a sophisticated printer a few feet away, or by Internet around the world, in seconds. The printer creates the object by layering on the varied materials, one thin layer at a time.
And 3-D printing creates its final product in one process -- unlike conventional manufacturing, which often demands extensive casting, forming and molding and assembling up to thousands of parts, some from distant locations.
That means products can be printed on demand, obviating large inventories (or waiting for a missing part to be delivered from afar). A single manufacturer can print a huge range of products. Increasingly, today's production and distribution of products could be de-globalized.
This could spell big cutbacks in massive container ships and their ports, together with fuel-guzzling truck rigs crisscrossing continents. The United States' heavy reliance on overseas manufacturing, especially from China, could be cut back dramatically. The carbon footprint of today's manufacturing and transport could be reduced substantially. 3-D involves dramatically reduced waste and use of toxic materials in manufacturing, and can ease the demand for such non-renewable resources as rare earth minerals.
The price of 3-D printers has now dropped so dramatically than any inventor with an idea can immediately design it, produce it, test until he or she is satisfied, and then (if the product is a good one) start selling units. And then get instant customer feedback.
"Inventor, entrepreneur, manufacturer, and marketer -- they can all be in one person," notes Garrett.
The model lends itself exquisitely to urban settings, in which creative people typically congregate in coffee shops, exchange ideas -- and if they need some extra skills, can pick them up at a local university.
The 3-D printing plans may become as ubiquitous as the apps today's young people so effortlessly produce and circulate.
With 3-D, as contrasted to mass manufacturing, the customer becomes part of the process. And products improve: for example, shoes with an image the customer picks and an insole that fits exactly.
In disasters such as Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, when all sorts of equipment and machinery break down, 3-D practitioners can print out spare parts or scan a broken item, fix the image, and then produce it -- a huge advance in recovery steps.
Garrett describes an especially appealing 21st-century 3-D-enabled vision: A far more decentralized, resilient world in which many products are made (and can be customized) locally. Foods are produced locally with vertical farms, even 3-D meat (built up from cell cultures of animals). If a person needs a new liver, it can be created using his own cells.
And with 3-D's efficiency and lack of waste, dependence on materials such as steel and titanium can be radically reduced.
Yet while a 3-D world can be decentralized and thus especially resilient, Garrett adds that people will remain very connected to the world economy -- the global village the Internet provides, with the best ideas (and 3-D files) flowing in from near and far.
One has to like this glowing vision -- even though 3-D threatens, inevitably, dramatic numbers of routine factory jobs (except, perhaps, in plants producing standardized items in vast numbers). Other downsides: 3-D will likely make it easier to counterfeit goods, and perhaps to steal intellectual property.
Still, there's rarely been a disruptive technology with such positive implications for the welfare and progress of the cities and surrounding regions destined to be mankind's home through this century and beyond.
Neal Peirce's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.