3D future...Is it Green?

Last week the Green Party released its high tech manufacturing policy at the Wellington Maker Space, they got my attention because this is an area close to my heart (both my sons are aspiring 'Makers' and the eldest had his 11th birthday party at the Maker Space) and I know they are onto something championing this whole area.

I do wonder how Gareth Hughes is going to align the bio-tech and nano-tech capabilities of this technology with some of his supporters but good on him for getting this into the public debate.

We really are heading into the post-industrial world and the idea of 3D printing can be traced back to a few sources, for me the ultimate 3D printer is the 'Star Trek' replicator and the concept of 'seeds and feeds' was developed for me in Neal Stephenson awesome book 'The Diamond Age'.

Industrial CNC technology has been heading in this direction for a while, when we were working on the business case for the 'NMi - Nelson Marlborough inforegion' project  (a Broadband Challenge funded extension of Network Tasman's fibre optic network into Marlborough) I came across Air New Zealand engineering subsidiary Safe Air who wanted fibre at Woodbourne.

The reason they wanted it was because they were FAA certified to make parts for aircraft provided their raw materials were of the required and their machinery was capable of machining the part to the required standard. Fibre to Safe Air would eliminate the need for the CNC files to be shipped on disk. This is a form of 3D printing, what Gareth has picked up is the rapid consumerisation of 3D printing.

The hobbyist is now being spoiled for choice as cheap 3D printers are now heading below $1000, and the results are getting better and better (although for some reason everyone seems to want to print rabbits???), I've been looking at this area for about 3 years now and while I can see huge potential, its still a long way from being ready for prime time.

There is a whole 3D eco-system that needs to be assembled and the printers are just one part of it, a far bigger piece of the puzzle is opening up the world of 3D design.

Original creative designs is one thing (Kiwi start-up Ponoko was a pioneer in this space) and represents a huge potential market for talented designers and crafts people. The Green policy recognises the importance of getting 3D design into our schools and there is a great future for talented 3D designers.

I can see the Green appeal in having the world serviced by 'distributed factories' (the vision of Ponoko founder Dave ten Have) where transport is reduced to the distance between the consumer and the nearest 'Fab' (fabrication point), a lot of packaging waste can be eliminated and consumers will get unheard of options for customisation.

it also marks the return in a very high tech sense of the artisan craftsman, the world will again see beautiful yet functional devices, tools, trinkets and toys.

But like all technologies there is a dark flip side, several in fact, the first is IP theft and counterfeiting - it will be possible to scan a product and recreate a perfect facsimile. Another threat is the use of substandard material and the subsequent risks of failure (thats why the FAA certifies people like Safe Air) and who and what do consumers trust?

Overall I'd have to give the Greens a B+ on this one, we look forward to seeing what other parties are considering in this area.