The Motley Fool sent me a tantalizing email the other day titled “The little shop that's putting China out of business.” The email invited me to link to a video on the next new technology poised to upend the global economy. The video is one of those breathy, "get in now" pitches, but the prospect of customizing everything I now buy at a store has appeal.
I kind of knew where they were going, but they really had me when they said 3-D printing would change transportation. Since land use and transportation are intimately linked, it seemed right to ponder the various changes if “Made in China” were a thing of the past.
3-D printing (see other post here) is also called additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping. A machine that is a bit bigger than a paper copier squirts out material in successive layers to create an object, like a wrench or cabinet knob or a kidney. This post assumes they are rightly predicting massive change.
Others have written on the pros of 3-D printing for cities (realistic models of proposed buildings) and the cons (guns). But I have not seen much written on what happens when the goods production, movement and consumption woven into the fabric of urban design and economic development unravel. Here are some thoughts about what might change if 3-D printing pokes holes in that fabric.
Land Use Categories – Most American cities are still locked into rigid land use designations for individual parcels. For non-residential uses, these categories tend to be largely grouped as industrial, manufacturing, retail, office, restaurant/bar and institutional. But what happens when light manufacturing shifts into individual retail stores, hospitals and offices? When does a desktop 3-D printer used to make supplies count as manufacturing? Is there a threshold above which a retail establishment is considered manufacturing? Do medical centers need to pull use permits for printing “replacement parts” for people? What matters – production amount? Materials used? Are there uses that actually need local safety regulations like food or medical uses?
Transport and Delivery– At the national scale, one can begin to consider demand decline for ports, warehouses, DHL, and Amazon’s distribution centers. But what about local circulation? What happens when shipments of dolls, party favors and appliance parts are replaced by boxes of 3-D printer cartridges and filament? The volume of stuff shipped will shrink dramatically, since packaging is reduced and since 3-D printing uses far less material than conventional methods. How will this affect loading dock sizes, elevators, and even delivery vehicle design? Will architects be able to reduce – or eliminate – loading dock space needed as smaller trucks use curbsides for deliveries?
Material– The material used in the printing process is both promising and a bit scary. On the one hand, entrepreneurs are experimenting with recycled goods as material. Landfills might attract a new generation of prospectors. Eliminating the need for the horrific process of siting a new landfill is a planner's dream come true. But what happens when goods made from natural metals and materials are replaced with resin and composite materials? Still, this seems like the most promising area of growth as researchers find ways to use all manner of materials. It might also stop the pillage of third world countries sitting on mineral deposits now at the bottom rung of production.
Economic Development – Localities are already sorting through the fallout of the global recession and its implications for the work force. 3-D printing adds another wrinkle. Regions may no longer have to compete for big box stores as in-house manufacturing takes root, and individual companies may create new positions for 3-D printing staff. But automated technology is infamous for creating fewer higher paying jobs. What kind of training programs should chambers of commerce, community colleges and local economic development corporations develop? Is the rush to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) paying enough attention to design and its role? This matters because 3-D printing is only as good as the design driving the arm that squirts stuff out.
Local Governments’ Economic Role– Local governments are often the biggest local economic force, particularly for small and rural communities. What if they establish their own manufacturing units? What happens to vendors, distributors and suppliers who now rely on the reliable stream of business? Local governments often adopt local preference clauses after heavy lobbying by suppliers. Would the same merchants also rise up when local governments try to save money with a DIY supply chain?
Retail & Tax Base– Retail deserves special attention, in part because of its role in community balance sheets. The problem is not just reduced sales for retail giants like Target, but also the reduction in sales taxes. If you buy something from Target or Staples, you pay sales tax. But if you make your own household items, the taxable items are the printer and the materials you use for printing. States may start taxing the computer program templates used to create stuff, but they are pretty much open source right now. It’s unlikely the sales tax for three ounces of resin would come close to the tax on a fancy branded ladle. For small and local business, the future is unclear. Some may go out of business while others will find ways to incorporate printed components into creative products.
To me, the reduction in sales tax is the biggest and least studied aspect of 3-D printing for cities. Fab Labs are great, but there are serious financial implications for local jurisdictions dependent on sales tax.
I love 3-D printing in an admittedly slavish kind of way. Here are twitter links to faves:
@shapeways (maker site)
@boingboing (snarky news site that covers lots of tech)
@techreview (MIT tech review)
@medialab (MIT Media Lab)
@louisvillemayor (Mayor Greg Fischer uses 3-D printing to prototype planning)