Sunday, April 3, 2011

3D printing and the 3rd World

As costs go down and the variety of printable materials go up, the number of users of 3D printing will increase. What does this mean for the Global South? Large stocks of semi-literate people, high inequalities, poor infrastructure characterize swaths of countries in Africa, Asia and South America. If the railroad brought together India, and the power-loom made China king of textile exports, what of 3D printing?   
3D printing is not heavily dependent on major investors – its cost is decreasing rapidly. It does depend on computer literate operators and a steady source of electricity. It seems likely that the means of production will become increasingly decentralized. Small informal groups of 3D printers within urban centers will be much more common.

But what will they be making? In countries with fewer opportunities to make major reinvestment, retrofitting durable and capital goods rather than replacing them will become easier. In the case of a taxicab, replacing specialized parts will be a matter of 3D scanning (this technology has become increasingly cheap….I made one with a camera, a simple laser and a computer -  $60), formatting on a computer and printing it. With good internet access, it might be possible to print off all the parts of a car.

This is just the inner futurist speaking – and nothing ages faster than predictions of the future. But the declining costs are a reality. 10 years ago, a quality 3D printer cost more than $50,000 dollars. Today, a desktop Makerbot costs $1,300 to make the equivalent quality. This has facilitated a boom in Do-It-Yourself printing in the Western world. Already in Germany DIY 3D metal printers have been made. The RepRap project was started in 2005 to create a printer that can print off its own parts to replicate itself.

During preceding decades the 1960s, 70s and 80s, many developing countries pursued Import Substitution Industrialization by raising tariffs on western products to protect their own small government-funded industries and markets. During the past 30 years, these tariffs were dropped and developing countries were forced to cut back on state-led industrialization. With the advent of 3D printing, it seems highly likely that industrialization will become highly decentralized and highly informal. 3D printing is likely to take-off within the Megacities of the Global South.  Profitability will be depend on high demand for parts for consumer, durable and capital goods, quality infrastructure like electricity and the internet and a large work force of computer-literate designers and operators. No longer will state be able to direct industrial policy – its role may be that of a facilitator, and not a director of economic policy. For large conglomerates like the Tatas and the Mistubishis, their role is that of research and development rather than mass production. It is still far more cheaper and reliable to mass produce products.


  1. The socialist that I am approves whole heartedly in putting the means of production in the hands of as many as possible.

  2. The ability to craft complex objects becomes easier, but it still depends on stable electric supplies, raw materials, internet use (for downloading 3d images of parts, etc). Since we source all these inputs from a small group of companies (although some are government run/regulated) there will exist pressures. Especially as intellectual property becomes threatened by 3D scanning of parts and designs.