If I had to choose the technology had is most likely to disrupt a wide range of industries in the next 5 to 10 years, it would be personal manufacturing. Work is already underway on creating the devices that will do for three-dimensional production what printers did for two-dimensional products (e.g., manuscripts, signs, cards, photographs, and the like).
MIT is already deeply involved in discovering custom and individual uses for such technology. Everything from ways to educate students to tracking reindeer has been explored. I think that the strong focus on making these tools usable for people with little technical expertise points to their great potential.
When computer-driven printers first arrived in offices and homes, few people thought beyond printing documents and newsletters. Today, we use them to create products that used to come from printers and publishers. They have become the standard way to create tickets for transportation and entertainment events.
In addition, people produce and trade cartoons, personalized cards, award certificates, and art. People create and distribute forms and calendars via the Internet, and special occasion booklets, for weddings and family reunions are produced.
It’s easy to imagine this in three dimensions, and to see the possibility for similar impact. Certainly, people will create fun items, such as game pieces, action figures, and jewelry. They will knock off sculptures, cookie jars, and toys that catch their fancy. They will finally be able to put the face of whatever obsession they have–whether it be a sports team, or dogs, or grandchildren–onto mailboxes and drawer pulls and teapots. There is likely to be whole industry for knickknacks and a social network dedicated to creating tchotchkes.
It may be that companies that are engaged in small-run manufacturing or in the creation of prototypes will find that people will prefer to use their own personal manufacturing devices to get these jobs done. Those who need minor repairs to plumbing or appliances may be able to make their own parts and fix the items without calling in a service person
At a higher level, we may see people creating prototypes in materials that are not useful, and bringing these to professionals to create the items they need. Inventive people may be encouraged to create prototypes, and it is easy to imagine that new items will come as people mix and match designs and play with the scales of digital plans.
Three developments could make such personal manufacturing even more important:
- First, if these devices begin to benefit from new materials -especially nano-materials that are in development- we could move beyond the first wave of simple plastics into materials that have the look, durability, and function of the best manufactured goods available today. Of course, with work in progress on “printing” biological organs with, and inkjet printers, there are even more interesting implications.
- A second development (and this may emerge before dramatic changes in materials available) would be using of coatings that could change the properties of already available substrates for personal manufacturing. These could alter the conductivity, stickiness, appearance, optical properties, bacterial resistance, or ability to repel water of devices individuals design and make and could lead to surprising applications.
- The third development would probably be the most dramatic. The ability to make these new manufactured goods smart, so that they could network with our information environment, has broad implications for the creation of an array of sensors and actuators in unexpected products.
Perhaps the biggest change coming from personal manufacturing will be when we have a generation that takes this capability for granted. Today, we see digital natives, those who grew up with the Internet, who view the world in a different way and explore ideas that their elders never saw. A generation that expects to shape the material world around it as routinely as we print a letter will certainly view its future in ways that are hard to predict, but probably will be spectacularly different.