Imagine this nightmare scenario: just before holiday guests arrive, you run the last load of dishes “SNAP,” the end of the top sprayer arm breaks off. Nowadays, you are stuck with either calling a plumber or going to the parts store. (I realize that you could also hand wash the dishes, but stick with me here.) Instead, imagine a future where you go to the manufacturer’s website, click on the part, hit Control-P and within minutes, you have the new part, ready to snap back on.
That future is already here and it’s called 3-D printing. It is just like ink-jet printing, but instead of ink, resin squirts out in layers to make something. The technique has been around a while, called “rapid prototyping” or additive manufacturing. Used now mainly to test prototypes stateside before sending final blueprints off to a Chinese factory, 3-D printing basically poses the interesting possibility of bringing mass production to the masses here. Websites like Thingiverse and Ponoco offer digital blueprints for a growing “personal factory movement.” A new company called TechShop is a chain of workshops, the kind your Dad had in the basement, but on a larger scale and fewer unmarked coffee cans filled with God-knows-what.
While DIYers will compose a large segment of 3-D print users, this could be a really big deal for manufacturing and jobs. The commercial trajectory might resemble how printing companies like Kinkos grew (and continue to grow). At first, 3-D printers will be expensive as original printers were, so you can imagine a store like Kinkos processing on-line orders for pick-up or delivery. Individual businesses will also be in the game, making everything from building supplies to medical devices on the spot. Each of these will occupy a different kind of factory space depending on the size of product lines, transport needs, and the toxicity of the materials used.
Speaking of materials, this is going to be an exciting new field. The race is on to create the strongest materials with the fewest negative side effects. Imagine mining landfills for new source materials. MIT is pondering that possibility now in their Media Lab.
So why would a land use person have any interest in this? The answer is plenty. There is an interesting conversation here is Sarasota about increasing the quality of uses allowed in land otherwise slated for light industrial development. I’ve also lived in other places that introduced higher quality uses into industrial areas, and the result was not pretty. Once you scale up, it is hard to go back. Shoppers and theater patrons may like a small dose of industrial-chic, but not the big trucks, smell and noise. Retail owners will fight back on new industrial businesses, partly because of impacts and mostly because of parking. Boosting retail in industrial areas can have the effect of enacting a moratorium on industrial uses; 3-D manufacturing basically means we are going to need that land for making things.
That industrial zoning might not even be right in the first place. Most Kinkos are located in General Commercial zoning, and 3-D printing (depending on the resin used) might be a great fit in neighborhoods. At a minimum, if 3-D printing challenges old notions of manufacturing, we're going to have to take a new look at zoning codes.
Warehousing and import business will also change radically. 3-D printing takes inventory from “just in time” to “right on time.” In fact, “right on time” will also be “made right here.” This begs the question of who will take the biggest economic hit, and Chinese factories, international shippers, and ports seem high on the list.
All of this spells a manufacturing future, but one that differs from what we know now (or set up incentive programs for). In addition to some big ticket manufacturing, work will likely be generated in small, highly specialized shops. In fact, much of it might be mobile as all manner of craftsmen (and women) are able to assess, measure and manufacture with an on-board printer. Places like Sarasota will now have a chance to be in the game, because we have the design chops (think Ringling College) and an army of skilled, retired and restless innovators. If anyone in Sarasota is interested in pulling together a field trip focused on how an entire community takes advantage of 3-D printing – drop me a line. This could be huge.