3D printing helps Italy’s battle against globalized manufacturing

3d printed glassesWhat’s interesting about this Bloomberg piece is how 3D printing complements Italy’s small factories, giving them the means to compete in a globalized market dominated by Asian manufacturing. Additive manufacturing doesn’t mean nearly as much to mass-scale undifferentiated production as it does for high-precision, detailed creations. At least for now. The fact that 3D printing in Italy looks different to 3D printing elsewhere, as Bruce Sterling has observed, probably helps too.  Like architect Rosa Topputo says in the piece: “Even when you do something with new technology, you can’t forget the aesthetics of the past.” The fusion of the craftsmanship of the past and the application of new technology helps put Italy at the cutting edge of a small but important global shift in manufacturing. (photo: www.darcstudio.net)

Bruce Sterling on 3Dprinting – an interview

Despite the growth of the 3Dprinting empowered global Maker movement, it still lacks any sort of must-have mega-hit. The challenge of the internet to the nation-state won’t be about information, as much as money flowing across borders. And Italy’s 3D-printing powered Maker movement is creating a unique style that builds on the culture’s strength in design and handmade goods. These are some of Bruce Sterling’s observations on the state of the Maker movement, 3Dprinting and the internet.

Author, futurist, design thinker, Sterling holds a unique place in the juncture between technology and society. He is one of the imaginations that popularized cyberpunk as a genre of science fiction, which blends high-tech possibilities with social decline and disaster. Cyberpunk comes to mind watching groups like ISIS blending terror and social media. The novel he co-wrote with author William Gibson, The Difference Engine helped put steampunk on the map, which is now so prevalent you can buy steampunk mouse pads at pop-up stores in shopping malls. Sterling wrote the first serious account of hackers, in The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, which documents among other things, early law-enforcement attempts in cyberspace and the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Oh, and Sterling often gives the closing talk at SXSWInteractive, the pow-wow of technology thinkers and entrepreneurs considered one of the bellwethers of the next big thing. These days Sterling lives in northern Italy, home to some of the most intuitive and creative meshing of design culture, 3Dprinting found in the global Maker movement. Since 3Dprinting has the potential to reshape global manufacturing with implication for geopolitics, it’s a continuing area of interest for those who want to understand the intersection of technology and power. Sterling agreed to answer a few questions about the practical implications of 3Dprinting, the Maker Movement and technology’s impact on society today.

3Dprinting’s skill-set

Me: Do you anticipate a different ethic and skill-set to 3Dprinting manufacturing than other existing types of manufacturing and product design?

Sterling: Not really, no. That would be like expecting a different ethic between saws and power-saws. I think there might be a somewhat different ethic between home hobby 3Dprinters and the kind of high-temperature sinter metal forges that could down the neighborhood. Fabbing [the digital design and creation process] is really interesting, but people will get used to it. The generation in school now has never seen the old ways.

3Dprinting’s lack of a megahit

Sterling: It interests me that the Maker scene has never created a true megahit, some toy or gizmo that literally everybody had to have. There’s never been any Maker thing that was as hugely popular as, say, certain viral YouTube hits. The free movement of data has really been about the sort-of free movement of some data among some cliques of Makers. Every once in a while you see a motion that somebody is going to crush the scene because certain zealots print gun parts. Other than that, the movement’s just sorta chugging along.

Italy’s Maker style

Me: Will certain countries or cultures win or lose from a wide embrace of 3Dprinting?

Sterling: Yeah, I’m suspecting that there will be regional making after a while. Certainly there are people in the likes of Barcelona that really believe that. They don’t expect to “win,” exactly, but they’re very into supporting digital fabrication as an industrial policy. The same goes for the Chinese. In the USA, Obama thinks makers are cute.

Me: Or should we not expect countries to benefit as much as particular communities, cities, gangs, clubs and guilds?

Sterling: Well, I don’t think every citizen is gonna get a general-issue Maker kit. Of course it’s going to be clusters of gangs, guilds, whatever, but you could say the same about, say, the movie industries. Movies get seen all over the place but there are areas of expertise where big-ticket movies get made.

Me: There is a lot of talk about the crossover between the Maker Movement and 3Dprinting. Given the deep history of artisans in Italy (frescoes, stonework, leatherwork, food, design), is Italy as an ideal culture for experimentation and adoption of 3Dprinting? More ideal than others?

Sterling: I like to think so, yeah. I think that “Make in Italy[the Italian 3D printing movement] does in fact look different from other Maker stuff in other countries. You’re right, it’s food, furniture, clothing and luxury craft. “Open Source Luxury” might make sense in the Italian context.

3Dprinting and the internet

Me: If 3Dprinting relies on free movement of data, how would a Balkanized internet shape the development of the industry/movement?

Sterling: Actually 3Dprinting is quite old was mostly Balkanized by patents for a long time, so it’s not like there was some perfect free open-source scene that will be spoiled by Apple printers. If Apple printers were around they’d behave like other kinds of Apple stuff: iTunes on board, Siri standing by, headphone jacks, whatever.

Me: I am curious not about the code behind 3Dprinters but the objects themselves that are printed.

Bruce: I think that’s a false distinction. Real 3DPrinters can’t make all possible objects. So the data about the printers is never entirely free of the realities of the mechanical substrate. Also, the “free” data about these objects has to be in some actual, organized database owned and maintained by real people, like, say, the Makerbot Thingiverse.

If Apple printers existed of course they would curate and censor the array of Apple objects. No one would expect Apple to do otherwise: it would be considered a feature of the system that Apple 3DPrinted objects were particularly well-designed.

Me: [But] if the unity of the internet breaks down, would that slow the ability for a design in Country A to be printed out in Country B? Would a libertarian’s gun designs from Austin, Texas be blocked from entering Russian cyberspace, say? Already, I know the Japanese have prosecuted a guy who printed out Defense Distributed’s 3Dprinted gun design there. Could you see that happening across various object categories – and not only weapons, but in types of objects a state may want to hold a monopoly on – for a variety of political or economic reasons?

Sterling: I don’t advise printing guns in Japan. Actually, I don’t advise printing guns at all, but the problem you’re describing here isn’t new. The internet may have some unity but the local authorities can still prosecute me for all kinds of local electronic crimes: software piracy, hate speech, pornography, whatever they like. Also, nation-states already set up firewalls and block access to entire website categories. And despite all this, 3DPrinting is spreading really fast.

Intellectual property

Me: Right now, intellectual property theft is a huge concern of corporations and some governments. But if 3Dprinting really gains traction, won’t it elevate the importance of designers and technical gurus over the people who create a single design that is mass produced?

Sterling: I think it’s more likely that you’d find new enterprises appearing that resolved that problem by acqui-hiring everybody, firing most of them, disrupting the value chain and using metadata to get some kind of new hammerlock on what was going on. Think Amazon. It didn’t exalt authors over publishers, it just squished all of them.

Me: Research from the US Federal Reserve has questioned the value of patents in fostering new industries. There is also a growing backlash against patent trolls. As 3Dprinting really grows more common, and potentially, no two products are exactly alike, what effect will it have on the patent debate?

Sterling: I don’t think there’s much of a “debate” there. Basically it’s just open banditry, and when anybody menaces the patent mess the bigger lawyer trolls just buy off the Congress. It’s a de facto tax of lawyers on technicians and Congress is heaps of lawyers and scarcely any technicians.

3DPrinting is pretty small potatoes in that struggle. They don’t have enough money to whip up the big-time trolls, even if somebody buys Makerbot and runs around slapping up lawsuits.

The nation-state and the internet

Me: The primacy of the nation-state as a political unit emerged following the invention of the printing press in the West. Today the internet is allowing likeminded activists, militants, artists, reformers to communicate, organize and act as if political borders don’t exist. Consequently governments, diplomats, regulators and law enforcement are all struggling with the borderlessnesss of this new environment. Do you believe the internet poses a permanent threat to the system of nation-states and borders that has become the norm since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648?

Sterling: The Internet per se, not really. International electronic funds transfer, yeah, that could wreck it. Post-national wealth is a much bigger threat than post-national data.

Also, the USA spent a trillion dollars fighting the Afghanis and couldn’t turn them into a nation, no matter what. The USA lost that war about enforcing world order in the teeth of jihadi “likeminded activists.” That’s pretty bad.

Me: You say that post-national wealth is a bigger threat than post-national data to the nation-state. But these days data (in the form of YouTube videos, say) has been used to find and motivate would-be jihadists. So far, the damage has been limited – but watching Europe (France – but also Germany), you can see the profoundly destablilizing potential. (Not to mention the extemes of the post-9/11 Bush years in the US). Would you consider that data (propaganda, recruiting videos, malicious cyber activity) itself is an equal threat to the post-national wealth?

Sterling: Are you saying that a free press is more frightening than a plutocratic aristocracy? That idea is crazy. Of course Jihadists are a threat, but holy warriors never needed YouTube.

Progress and climate catastrophe

Me: There has been some gnashing of teeth lately for the level of technical progress in the time of the internet (no human trip to Mars, no flying cars but iPhones and Facebook for everyone). What accounts for these technological disappointments which have happened in our lifetime?

Sterling: People are easy to disappoint. Also, going to Mars is blatantly silly when nobody’s ever managed to colonize the Gobi Desert.

Personally, I gnash my teeth about climate change, which is all about the toxic exhaust coming out the tailpipes of colossal technical progress.

Me: Following the Great Recession, and the Occupy Movement and general dissatisfaction with the drift of the modern world in recent years, do you detect a growing appetite for the kind of big technological projects we had seen in the 20th century? Do you see the glimmers of a movement in the Hieroglyph project? Or, in your experience, do such projects remain a mostly niche obsession, years ahead of its time?

Sterling: I kind of like the niche obsessions. The Internet used to be a niche obsession. Occupy was the polar opposite of a “big technological project” because it didn’t have any deliverables; there was no blueprint, no goal.

If anybody’s got appetite for that stuff that provokes Neal Stephenson nowadays, it’s the Chinese. We’ll be hearing more from them, and they’re not a niche outfit.

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3Dprinting: A Mediterranean Future?

Few subjects generate the kind of hype that 3Dprinting does. Its advocates claim it will reshape the world of manufacturing and by extension, the global economy. Skeptics ask whether 3Dprinting will prove to be this era’s lasers. When lasers were first commercialized in the 1970s and 1980s, there was excited talk about how the technology would transform the world (lasers writing advertisements on clouds, etc). Although that technology has matured considerably in the past decades, we still don’t seem to be living in the “laser-age.”

3Dprinted glasses. DWS Systems in Vicenza.
3Dprinted glasses. DWS Systems in Vicenza.

Will 3Dprinting be different? It’s impossible to say. But a quick search of the term shows, if nothing else, the dizzying array of potential applications for the technology, which does suggest it could have a wide impact. And if 3Dprinting has a big global impact the natural question to ask is: who will benefit? It’s an essential geopolitical question.

Analyst Alex Chausovsky of IHS-APAC writes that China used 3Dprinting in the production of its J-25 Ghost Bird fighter, creating a rival to the US F-22 Raptor. As with most Chinese military claims, independent verification is needed. Nonetheless, the potential is real for 3Dprinting to not just fast-track weapons development but to reorder economies and the relative importance of national skill sets. Chausovsky writes:

In addition to its influence on competition between countries, 3D printing technology also has major implications for national security, geopolitics, and other sensitive aspects of global inter-country relations and interactions.

One element to 3Dprinting you have to remember is that if it’s impact is profound, it won’t necessarily super-charge existing manufacturing abilities but fundamentally alter the equation of what makes up good manufacturing. In this shift, the role of design

D-Shape's Enrico Dini: The technology can 3Dprint buildings in freeform.
D-Shape’s Enrico Dini: The technology can 3Dprint buildings in freeform.

and information will be elevated, as the capacity for large scale production becomes less critical. After all, there could be a lot of economic growth centered around customized, rather than mass produced, goods.

Of the presumed rising economic powers, the BRICs nations, only Brasil stands out as having a relatively noteworthy design history. (BRICs stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China). Countries whose design heritage is strong and whose work is still sought globally today stand out – and some of those are the mature economies well-outside the BRICs grouping. Nations like Spain and Italy come to mind. Spain and Italy are all struggling with slow growth, demographic challenges and huge public debts. In other words, these are countries under profound pressure for structural economic reform already – the ones that should be most open to embracing new industries for growth.

In fact, in an environment where 3Dprinting develops and matures into new industries, today’s ‘inevitably rising’ economies may struggle. Chausovsky writes:

“In China’s case, a low-cost manufacturing model, which led to a period of unprecedented growth for its economy over the past several decades, is already under stress due to increasing workers’ wages, which have risen by an average annual rate of 15 per cent in recent years. What will happen to this model if goods are no longer “made in China”, but instead printed locally to take advantage of significant savings on shipping and logistics costs? This certainly has to worry the country’s government, which has kept its massive population relatively appeased by the ongoing promise of economic growth and the associated improvement in quality of life.”

In his report on Asian investment in 3D printing technology, one country’s approach stands out: South Korea wants to train 10 million creative makers by 2020. Whether South Korea will achieve the goal or not, the fact that a nation famous for its mass animation work wants to turn its attention to 3Dprinting creativity is notable. I think the South Koreans are right in betting that the success of the technology will most likely call for many more designers on deck to exploit the personalized, customized options the technology offers.

Print on demand from Barcelona.
Print on demand from Barcelona.

But along these lines, again look to the Mediterranean and cultures like those found in Italy and Spain which are steeped in the handcrafted arts of leather, painting, mosaics, marble cutting, masonry, even cooking. In a word, the tactile arts. The reason people pay more for Italian-designed and made spectacles and Spanish-designed and crafted Camper shoes, may well be the same reason people pay for 3D-printed designs from those countries: they look and feel better, the national brand conveys a sense of style and craftsmanship, and finally, the design may just be more thoughtful. And recall, 3D printing will be a blend of data and materials, with the data being a significant part of the value.

If and when the industry matures and scales up, people in places in Italy and Spain may be the most inclined to have the skills to be successful 3print-makers and designers. The building blocks of the skill set may already be in place in Mediterranean cultures.

Free data, freer makers

There is another element in this too which makes Mediterranean nations stand out. A robust 3Dprinting industry, in which household goods, clothes, tools, and even a mythical Product X, are created on demand to personalized requirements will require masses of information to be shared easily and freely. In other words, for a country to have a successful 3Dprinting industry that can produce breakthroughs and new designs there must be as few constraints on data as possible.

Fab Lab Trento in Italy ( http://www.makeinitaly.foundation/what-is-a-fablab/?lang=en)
Fab Lab Trento in Italy (www.makeinitaly.foundation)

In authoritarian nations like Russia and China, controls on the internet are tightening. In as much as 3Dprinting is the blend between data and manufacturing, data part of the mix may run into inhibitions in places like Russia and China.

Basically, this would come down to fears that 3Dprinting technology can be used to subvert or overthrow the state (think 3Dprinted guns) or more likely industries of value to the government. So, governments in places like China and Russia want to keep an eye on what kind of data is being shared, how the products are being used, etc.

In Mediterranean countries, which enjoy strong design history, this constraint on data doesn’t exist.

Nonetheless, it’s far from clear Italy and Spain can capitalize on 3Dprinting to make it a new industry.

In fact, there are a couple risks.

The governments may not embrace the technology as a central tool in a new industry. They may make the environment too hostile to small businesses and start-

Olivetti typewriter from 1969 - made technology accessible through innovative design (photo: MakeInItaly)
Olivetti typewriter from 1969 – made technology accessible through innovative design (photo: MakeInItaly)

ups, or in fact, youth. The smallish Australian town I live in has a pizzeria staffed by five or six young Italians who clearly are better off economically working in a a restaurant in Australia than waiting for career jobs back at home. At work in Melbourne, I once received a cold call for work from a young Spanish journalist who, upon being laid off in Barcelona, realized his chance of finding work was better in Australia than in Europe. Too many young Italians and Spaniards are moving abroad because of out-of-control youth unemployment. So there is a risk that even if the Spanish and Italian governments get serious about backing 3Dprinting, risks and all, they will find the pool of potential young 3D printing designers, makers, and inventors diminished.

What 3Dprinting still lacks is the magical Product X; the must-have object that can only be made through 3Dprinting. My sense is that whatever the product turns out to be will involve some level of personalization and style – both of which favor the Mediterranean and Japanese design economies. But I also see a link between this mythical Product X and youth, who can envision new uses for technology that are often invisible to their elders.

As noted in an earlier post, geopolitics may be another catalyst for the industry. In addition to Chinese jet fighters, the Russians have proven they can 3Dprint their way around import-restrictions, even if they aren’t currently doing so. US rocket makers Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne are building an engine to replace Russian-made RD-180s and using 3Dprinting to compress the design and production time.

Should 3Dprinting become the Next Big Thing, it will move the discussion around BRICs vs non-BRICs, even between the “inevitable” rise of Asia and the decline of the Europe. Am I right? Am I wrong? I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Please contact me at @chrizap.