Trade wars will boost digital manufacturing. But not at home

Last summer, professor J. Pearce argued that “Trade wars will boost digital manufacturing - at consumers’ own homes with personal 3D printers”. I hope that that 3D printing-enhanced boost happens, but I also believe, and hope, that it will not happen where prof. Pearce says.

The argument by prof. Pearce can be summarized as follows:

  • Nearly all economists predict that current trade wars will raise prices of many products for American consumers
  • [SINCE] A lot of what you can purchase at Walmart comes from China and is made from plastic…
  • … consumers may start 3D printing at home those same products
  • [BECAUSE, THESE DAYS] even inexperienced consumers could make their money back from investing in a $1,250 3D printer within six months, by printing just one product a week over the course of five years

On Twitter, Joshua Robot criticized that whole thesis, arguing that, in a nutshell:

  • 3D printing is equally afflicted by tariffs, since many components of 3D printers, and their consumables, come from China
  • 3D printing at home is so above the capabilities of the average person that community support, online or in makerspaces, is seldom sufficient to fill that lack of skills
  • more often than not, 3D printing is only good for prototyping anyway

Maybe they are both right, and both wrong

I am sure that, in and by itself, the study made by prof. Pearce is correct. I only question the scope of its applicability, and do not like certain consequences.

Trade wars will boost digital manufacturing. But not at home /img/pile-of-junk.jpg
Image source: significant concerns with China's... recent IMPORT BAN of plastic scrap

To begin with, these days it does not matter much where certain stuff is produced: much of the cheap plastic stuff that comes from China should not be produced anymore, period. As things stand today, unless certain scientific reports are total scams, trade wars are a non-avoidable opportunity to learn to manufacture less, not differently.

Second, poverty. Many of the people who shop at Walmart are the same people who cannot afford to spare 400 dollars to escape from hurricanes. They just cannot afford to spend 1200 dollars on anything that may save them ten times as much… in five years.

Third, space. 3D printers at home are reserved to people who have a dedicated workbench, if not a toolshed, out of reach of kids.

Fourth, and most important, people’s time and interest. No matter how much we preach, only a small minority of people is born with the right mix of time, natural attitude and motivation to regularly do 3D printing at home. Expecting otherwise means repeating the same mistake made, by several decades now, by the orthodox advocates of the GNU/Free Software movement: “if software is Free as in Freedom, people (instead of what, one every hundred thousands individuals?) can and will adapt it to their needs, and give back to the community, one way or another”.

No way. Humans are not like that, and there is nothing wrong with it. Home 3D printing as a mass phenomenon cannot happen. Above all, even if I were completely wrong about people skills and attitudes, it is something that should not be allowed to happen. Put a 3D printer in every home, and the almost certain result in five or ten years will be:

  • much more non-recyclable, home-3d-printed waste in landfills all around the globe
  • millions of home 3D printers dumped in the same landfills, after being used less than ten times

Mass 3D printing? Yes, please. Just not at home

Professor Pearce is right to say that current trade wars can boost distributed digital manufacturing. I not only agree with that, I do hope it happens. I only disagree on where all that manufacturing should be distributed.

Filling first world households with one more non-recyclable appliance used once a week makes no sense to me. Much better to promote digital manufacturing community stores, where people can go to order and buy custom copies of whatever (certified?) open source object they actually need, as easily and naturally as they go make photocopies today.

Making that scenario the default one is the way to go. All we members of the DiDIY Project already did a lot of research on why and how this should happen, and summarized our findings in these papers:

I continue to work in this field. If you think I may contribute to your “digital distributed manufacturing” project, want me to speak on these topics, or just want to exchange ideas and informations, please do not hesitate to email me.