What is it that fundamentally separates ancient manufacturing techniques from modern ones? What practical aspect has allowed the latter to evolve continuously while the former stagnated for millennia? Setting aside the social and political factors, it boils down to this: Rather than leaving the grunt work up to the individual art and skill of a tradesman, the manufacturing process was broken down into discrete, standardized tasks that could be automated, scaled, and accomplished rapidly, regularly, and efficiently. This is common knowledge found in any historical explanation of the Industrial Revolution, but here's something that is not common knowledge: The transition is still ongoing to this day, and we are fast approaching a quantum leap in the process that will open up a new world of possibilities to mankind - a world where every person will some day control an entire economy in microcosm.
The electronics industry has been on the bleeding edge of change for over a generation, and in particular the production of microprocessors illustrates the principles involved in how manufacturing is evolving: It's an area that has become so thoroughly rationalized that computer chips are constructed through automated deposition of one near-perfect atom-thick layer at a time. And because the process is discrete (i.e., digital rather than analog), rational, and standard, the manufacturing process for chips made the long march of Moore's Law possible - and it can't be overstated how radical a thing that was and still is: Planned technological development based on predictable geometric improvements to production methods.
This was a far cry from the whacky inventor / mad scientist model of tech development prior to the Computer Age, and also very different from the crash program model of WW2 and the Space Race: The process of change itself had achieved a level of rationality and automation, accelerating and regularizing progress (at least in one aspect of one industry) to a level never before seen. It didn't require the blue-sky insights of some genius oddball or the mobilized emergency efforts of nations, but simply the routine, experimental tweaking of parameters to double the number of transitors on a chip every 18 months to 2 years. Granted, this is much easier with information technology because its performance is abstract, but that's merely the reason why it leads the way - it's still very much applicable to the rest of the economy.
As chip manufacturers approach the physical limits of their current materials, any number of doomsayers over the past few years have prophesied the end of Moore's Law and the beginning of an era of stability and stagnation in the industry. But rather than staying confined to the limits of existing chip architecture, the process is simply being extended into a higher dimension: 3D chips are now actively in development that leverage everything the industry knows about producing chips in 2D in order to "stack" them into something with radically greater potential. In the same way that linear (i.e., 1D) electrical pathways are organized in 2D to create traditional circuits, those circuits can then be organized in 3D to greatly extend their power.
Once this transition occurs, whenever it does, there is no telling what will happen to Moore's Law: It may initially be slower due to working out the kinks and characterizing the possibilities of 3D circuit architecture, but ultimately it could be much greater and go on for far longer than it did with traditional chips. Now, computer chip evolution isn't even the main subject of this discussion, and not the most interesting in my opinion: I am not, for instance, a believer in technological singularity - every moment carries its own event horizon beyond which some information is lost as new patterns emerge, but there will never come a point when the overall patterns of technology become impenetrable to the human intelligence whose thoughts and motives are at their root. However, the shape of how processors have evolved and are evolving speaks directly to what I'm trying to show: Predictable, geometric progress becomes possible when physical tasks have been thoroughly rationalized and automated.
Now, you probably think that everything has already gone through this transition generations ago, but look around you at all the industries that never got the memo: We still by and large construct buildings, cities, and utility and transportation infrastructure in the ancient way, with large numbers of human tradesmen doing skilled tasks based on slow intuitive judgment rather than having integrated machines perform rapid precision tasks in high volume. Just imagine if instead of having an automated factory build cars, each and every component of a car was personally hand-crafted by one person in some trade shop, then delivered to an assembly point where a crew assembles it by hand. Those would be some damned expensive, inefficient cars: And yet that's how we still make buildings, pave/repair roads and sidewalks, and lay pipes, wires, and cables. It's also to a lesser extent how we make jet aircraft, which is why it takes so damn long to make any kind of progress in large-scale commercial aviation.
These are the technological reasons why poor people in the third-world are forced to live in squalid shantytowns built out of random junk with mud for streets, and why basic infrastructure is such a major barrier for developing countries to rise into prosperity. Even when you have supportive governments making a solid effort to move forward, the sheer expense and complexity of development is a major obstacle - all the time, resources, specialist trades and contractors that have to be organized, and so on. With all those hands in the pot, it's unsurprising that corruption and inefficiency play such a massive role in construction worldwide. These costs are a major reason why even in wealthy countries, new construction and maintaining the quality of existing developments are often considered mutually exclusive - the phenomenon that led to suburbanization in the US after WW2.
But let's take a break from the large-scale, and start with something seemingly limited and mundane: The printer on your desktop. That humble little gadget is actually a massive triumph of cumulative technological gestalt going all the way back to Gutenberg: The original printers were human tradesmen who arranged hand-carved block letters on a tray in order to imprint them in ink on paper, one page at a time, and the closest thing to images or graphics that could be printed in the later ages of the trade involved painstakingly carving out a stencil. Today, with a high-end printer, you could faithfully capture the entire Book of Kells in a matter of hours that took generations of Dark Age monks to produce:
And how was this achieved? By reducing letters and images to dots - simple, standard, discrete task-elements - and automating the process of placing them. At first it was very crude, with dot matrix printers spelling out words with a few visibly-large dots in a single color. But because the elements of the text - and thus, of any given image - had been made discrete, all that remained to achieve an arbitrary level of detail and resolution was to make the dots smaller, use three-color inks to make any other possible color, and place them with greater precision, faster: All of which are well-defined, quantifiable, single-parameter tasks amenable to predictable progress. So now photorealism is completely mundane.
Now suppose that instead of using paper as the medium for an image, it's used as the raw material of the image itself. Imagine a printer that instead of squirting ink, uses a needle or laser to poke little holes, lines, and indentations in the paper, cutting and shaping the paper itself into a desired form. The same principles by which ink printing evolved to photorealism could also apply in this case, could they not? Each hole and indentation is a quantifiable, discrete element out of which an arbitrary shape can be derived, and the size and resolution of those elements can be regularly improved upon until some optimum performance is achieved. At that point the paper itself could be formed into things as intricate, delicate, and natural-looking as any snowflake or leaf.
But now take it one step further: Having shaped and fashioned a single piece of paper into a detailed form, could you not shape another piece of paper somewhat differently, and then another, and another, such that when they're stacked together they form a three-dimensional sculpture out of paper, with the various internal holes and extended spaces forming continuous pipes and tunnels throughout the volume? Welcome to the concept of 3D printing: Pretty much the future of everything, and an entire world of untapped economic potential. Today's 3D printers work mostly with plastic materials and operate by adding rather than subtracting material, but their output is small-scale and not very detailed:
But if it can work with plastic, why not concrete? Why not metal? Do we absolutely have to make large metal things in huge, expensive, high-temperature molds that can only operate in factories with all sorts of safety precautions needed? Do we actually need professional construction tradesmen manually pouring concrete into molds that were themselves manually set by steelworkers? Look back to the hypothetical case of the 3D paper printer with its intricate system of holes and tunnels, and ask yourself whether that would be cheaper and more efficient than building a specialized mold reflecting the holes and then forming the paper sheets around the mold.
Obviously it would be vastly cheaper, far quicker, more versatile, and far more reliable to print than to mold, in the same way that actual computer printers are superior to printing from stencils. The main benefit comes from the fact that with a 3D printer, all you have to do to change what's being created is just change some inputs in the computer program that's operating it, same as with a 2D printer, but when you work with molds you have to create an entirely new mold to change anything about the desired output. The latter is not very amenable to experimentation, and makes progress move slower than it could otherwise.
So imagine that instead of creating a mold and then pouring metal into it, which requires some level of skill, you have a machine that deposits tiny droplets of metal on to some substrate and then builds progressively from there into whatever 3D shape is desired? Or suppose that instead of teams of human workers manually pouring concrete into molds, you just have a large-scale concrete printer on site laying down one layer of a building's structure at a time? Levels of detail, intricacy, and artistry that are not practical with current construction techniques become as simple as uploading a new design into the computer running the printer: Wavy surfaces undulating irregularly in three dimensions, awkward angles that would be difficult or impossible with poured molds, and really anything that your imagination can conjure that obeys the laws of physics and the structural limits of your materials. Imagine a building like this one in Manhattan - which was built at costs only sustainable in Manhattan - being ubiquitous and cost-effective on a smaller scale:
Such a manufacturing process for buildings would radically change the shape of architecture, making rounded surfaces not only more practical, but actually cheaper and more structurally sound than angular designs (due to the amount of material used, the speed of completion, the angles of force, and the thermal efficiency advantages). When - and I do say when, not if - 3D printing of concrete structures becomes standard practice, it will significantly alter the look of cities, as curves become more commonplace, and would also lead to an explosion of new construction both within and beyond existing developed areas. Due to the large reduction in cost, projects would be designed a lot bigger and taller than they are today, not to mention more creatively due to the simplicity of experimenting with new forms. Shantytowns in poor areas of the world could be replaced with real cities without pricing the people out, and trailer parks in this country could likewise be replaced with something more visually appealing, less stigmatizing, and less vulnerable to natural disasters.
At the moment, 3D concrete printing is an area of active R&D, most prominently through a method called contour crafting (CC) being developed by professor Behrokh Khoshnevis at USC. Basically, to construct a building using CC, a big gantry crane moves back and forth over an area on two parallel tracks while a "printer head" deposits concrete where desired, gradually building up layers until the structure is complete. Each layer contains holes that in aggregate form the spaces for plumbing and wiring, which are themselves progressively added into the structure as the layers build up. The technique is also of interest to researchers studying potential construction methods for lunar and Mars colonies. A TED talk given by Professor Khoshnevis on the process he's developing:
For the moment, 3D printing is more a creative art utilized by DIYers to make handicrafts and elaborate tchotchkes, but its promise goes far beyond that and covers a much broader swath of possibilities than just building construction: Prosthetics, replacement organs, cosmetic surgery, and artificially-constructed foods built into arbitrary shapes, textures, and tastes from raw organic molecules are all major areas of possible benefit. If you can print with ink, concrete, or semiconductors (an area known as printed electronics) you can certainly print with cells to create organic tissues.
In fact, one of the co-founders of Paypal, Peter Thiel, has invested in a venture to create 3D printed animal products from cell cultures - leather to start with, then actual meat constructed to taste and feel real without the moral problems of needlessly slaughtering animals. If this proves practical, the long-term potential is enormous: If you can figure out how to print complex animal tissues, printing grains, fruits, and vegetables is a pretty simple matter, and then you can start experimenting with how to print complete meals. They would also be a lot safer, since your food wouldn't be coming directly from any actual plant or animal, and would be far more isolated from pathogens than anything coming from a factory farm or nature.
BTW, what does this sound like - any food you want constructed on a cellular level by a general manufacturing device? It sounds like a Star Trek replicator, doesn't it? And for good reason - that's pretty much what it is, and the natural evolution of where such technology would be headed. Not only would it be more ethical than the ways we currently get our food, but far more ecologically sound - farmlands could be restored to their natural wilderness state, and existing wilderness in developing countries would no longer be threatened by farmers. Moreover, the total energy expended in creating a given quantity of food would likely be far lower than with present agriculture.
At first, obviously, the technology would be used on industrial scales by food companies and you would buy their products like normal at a grocery store or restaurant - as you would once have gone to a professional printer to get something printed. But we're not just talking about how businesses operate: The change is more profound than that. As the price and size of the machinery goes down and the capability goes up, eventually normal people could possess the technology.
So, imagine this: You walk into your 5-story 3D printed house that cost what a 1-story house constructed today with present methods would cost, with its interior domes and arches that cost you practically nothing extra, and walk into your kitchen to get some food. Do you open a refrigerator or a cupboard? No. You call up a display on your food printer, select one of the thousands of recipes preloaded on it, and wait while it builds your food from rapid deposition of small amounts of a multitude of organic substances. We can assume simpler preparation steps like baking or boiling would be left to you, but the subtle flavor touches that today only a master chef can elicit would be built in from the beginning. This aspect of the promise won't happen any time soon, but it's exciting to see the shape of this technology in current trends.
Even that only scratches the surface though: Imagine a new tooth printed directly into your socket when you get a tooth pulled; apps for designing your own home, furniture, automobile, glasses frames, musical instruments, tools, kitchen utensils, games, sculptures, actual living houseplants, really anything at all. And I'm not talking about mixing and matching standard options like at a car dealership - I mean exercising as much control as you care to, and the cost never being substantially greater than buying from templates. Think of ordering a car that looks like something out of your wildest dreams (and someone else's worst nightmares), and it costs you virtually nothing extra because there's no fundamental difference in the printing process between one body design and another. Maybe you want it to be an exact outward replica of a 1968 Mustang despite having whatever under the hood, or the Batmobile, or something totally deranged - if the printer could do it at all, there would be little difference in cost.
If you're like me, you've been bored by this "future" we live in right now where pretty much everything looks like it did 30 years ago but with a few extra gadgets tacked on. Things are supposed to look a lot different - cities are supposed to be soaring and exotic, with all sorts of strangeness afoot, but despite a few glitzy areas everything is pretty much as it was or worse. But I think this has just been an interregnum, not an indicator of anything fundamentally stagnating: Cities are going to become very weird, exotic, beautiful places with soaring and pleasantly bizarre structures, not just in the downtown business districts of megalopolises, but anywhere. Culture is going to attain an entirely unprecedented level of kaleidoscopic complexity. Here are some examples of CC output - bear in mind this is concrete deposited by a printer in (as I understand it) a matter of minutes to hours:
Today, 3D printing is already making headway in a number of industries: Although you can't cost-effectively order a custom body job for a car just yet, car manufacturers have adopted 3D printing as a means of rapid prototyping - in some cases building full-scale auto bodies for display at shows as concept cars. There are also numerous DIY or "Maker" websites where you can upload design specs and get back various small items as artistic pieces. Some examples found on Google - as you can see, while patterns can be quite intricate, there is plenty of room for improvement in resolution:
Now, admittedly there is a cost to these changes: Construction workers, building contractors, and associated tradesmen make a decent living when they're able to unionize, and their livelihoods would essentially disappear if something like CC became the standard method of building construction. Ditto for people who specialize in working with metals, like welders and such, if 3D printing in metal became practical. But the way to deal with the loss would be to see that we have strong social safety nets, job retraining programs, and other adult education, not to resist technology that would benefit everyone from all walks of life.
Humanity has been losing skilled trades since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but no one alive today wishes we could go back to a time when you had to hire a skilled professional to do the things we take for granted as trivial aspects of everyday life. Does anyone yearn to have their call directed by a human switchboard operator, or interpreted through Morse code by a telegraph operator? Is it really a shame that professions specializing in the care and training of horses are now a tiny hobbyist niche? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why: Because I can talk to someone in Zimbabwe right now if I feel like it, or hop in a car and be in another climate before supper time. Real, fundamental technological progress is always good for the world, even if it causes problems for some of the people some of the time.
The ultimate promise of 3D printing is not merely that people can be more creative - it goes way beyond that, out into the distant future. When people can pour basic organic molecules into a machine and get out a three-course meal that tastes like it was made by any chef in a database; when they can buy a parcel of land, upload any design they please that comports with zoning regulations into a computer, and some truck-based printer apparatus shows up and builds the whole damn thing in a matter of days; when every last thing in a person's possession was chosen from a near-infinite selection of possibilities, and cost them less than anything available today; when people have unlimited direct personal access to high-tech means of production, and need only pay the cost of materials to use it; that is more of an economic liberation than any political program could ever hope to achieve, proving once again that technology is the most progressive of all possible human endeavors.
Some day we'll wonder at images of human beings crawling around on steel I-beams as they build skyscrapers, in the same way that today we wonder at the crazy risks workers of previous eras had to take to make a living. Their successors, though perhaps with less leverage, will not envy the risks today's tradesmen take and the constant accidents that befall them. And the jobs that replace those lost won't have the same stature, but the people who work them will have more options in life than we can even imagine because of what technology makes possible for all of humankind.