A technology that adds value to our lives is an ethically good thing. A technology that enables a whole range of services that add value to our lives is even better. Smartphones are the obvious example: Apple’s iPhone has spawned an entire industry of app-makers. Even more important, ethically, would be a technology that could make a real change in grass-roots manufacturing, one that would allow innovation to be democratized, and that would allow local entrepreneurs to solve all kinds of problems, both big and small.
So, what if a single technology could do all of the following? That is the promise of 3-D printing.
This is a technology that can allow a surgeon in an isolated northern Canadian town to manufacture custom-made surgical implants—right in the clinic—to allow reconstructive surgery to be done locally. It can allow a self-employed courier with an electric bike in a rural African community to have replacement parts made cheaply and quickly in the nearest town with electricity. It can allow you to print out for yourself the bolt that was missing when you opened the box for that Ikea desk. And it can allow every potential entrepreneur with a great idea and some basic computer skills to click “Print” and have those ideas turned into physical reality.
If you haven’t yet heard of 3-D printing, now is the time. 3-D printing is exactly what it sounds like—printing 3-dimensional objects much the way current desktop printers print 2-dimensional text and images. Although technologies vary, the most common method of 3-D printing uses “molten polymer deposition,” basically laying down micro-thin layer after micro-thin layer of melted plastic to build things. Such printers operate much like standard desktop inkjet printers, but with an extra axis of motion and a “print” head that squirts molten plastic rather than ink.
To learn more about this technology, I paid a visit to Toronto’s own Panda Robotics, a startup in the final phases of finishing its prototype PandaBot printer. Unlike many existing 3-D printers, which are aimed at industrial applications, the PandaBot is intended as a consumer gadget, priced at about $1,000 and expected to ship in spring of 2013. The PandaBot plugs into a computer via standard USB cable.
I asked Pandabot co-founder Kelly John Rose why he thinks 3-D printing is so exciting. “It opens up a whole new economy,” said Rose, “in customization for clients, in how designers can interact with their customers directly by creating designs and sending them cheaply over the Internet to be printed out, and in how companies can provide better customer service by providing replacement parts at no cost to themselves.” To provide a replacement part, all a company needs to do is create a printable CAD file for the replacement part and make it accessible on its website. All the consumer has to do is download the file and hit “Print.”
It’s clear the technology has significant implications for manufacturing and supply chains. “As 3-D printing continues to evolve at an incredibly rapid rate, it won’t be long before we will simply purchase designs and print them out as needed at home rather than go to a store every time we need a new part, new mug, or new tool,” Rose enthuses. “It essentially democratizes manufacturing.”
Entry-level 3-D printers like the Pandabot are the all-important thin edge of the wedge, in terms of understanding the significance of this technology. Industrial-quality 3-D printers are now being used for rapid prototyping and for architectural modelling. There are also reports that the U.S. military has deployed one or more 3-D printers to the front lines in Afghanistan, where engineers can use them to make replacement parts for vehicles and weapons right on the spot. Advanced 3-D printers can print objects out of metals, too, so the possibilities are endless.
But cheaper, smaller-scale printers like the Pandabot are going to play a crucial role in weaving 3-D printers into our lives, and into the way we think about manufacturing. According to Pandabot’s Rose, “the more 3-D printers are out in people’s homes, the more companies will want to provide [printable] goods for them. The more companies provide goods for them, the more people will want these printers in their homes. It’s a positive feedback cycle that, once it starts, will change how we all purchase goods.”
Technologies like this help us see that ethics isn’t just about rules. It’s about creating value, and finding fairer distributions of value. Our interest in business ethics should include an interest in the ways in which markets and businesses create value, and the rules, principles, and innovations that help them do that.