3D printers: The next wave of robots

When combined with scanners, today's 3D printers do more than mold figurines out of plastic goop. They're closer to displacing a broad swath of everyday jobs than you think

many robots array museum
Credit: flickr/Ran Yaniv Hartstein

I recently traveled to India with my 10-year-old son for a friend’s wedding. I had less than two weeks, three days of which were filled with wedding events, but while there I wanted to do something that's usually cost prohibitive in the United States: I wanted to get a made-to-fit custom suit, sport jackets, slacks, and shirts.

I bought all of this and a pair of cufflinks for less than $1,000. The materials were only marginally cheaper than in the United States, but the labor was nothing and the skill level was much higher than I commonly find near home.

The high cost of labor and high cost of living in the United States are distorting. In India, you have a highly respected tailor (called “master” by everyone in the store) whose establishment is connected to a shop where you buy fabric in much the way independent optometrists are connected to lens crafters. In India, you might get a custom-tailored polyester blend suit. In the United States, you would never do this; the labor would cost so much more than the material, you might as well buy the best material.

This got me to thinking: 3D scanners, cheap robotic cutting machines, and other tools already exist. Why can’t I walk up to a kiosk, select my fabric, stand in to be measured by something resembling the PlayStation 4’s camera, and come back an hour later for a custom suit with basically no cost of labor?

To some degree, this stuff is at the tipping point. In another year or two, I’ll see startups go big, and I’ll kick myself due to my inability to prostrate myself before venture capitalists (and due to my distaste for moving to San Francisco, where my upper middle class income would put me below the poverty line).

We’ve covered stuff like 3D printers in the past. Today, ubiquitous among the scrapbookers and craftspeople are the Cricut machines that let you pick patterns or upload your own SVG (scalable vector graphics). I got one of these machines, played with it, and made various stencils. It took my executive assistant about 10 minutes to figure it out and fill the office with crafts. I figured it out in 20 and made a cutout of my company’s new logo.

3d printer logo
3d printer desktop Andrew C. Oliver

It took only 20 minutes for me to learn how to work this cutting machine and cut out my company's new logo.

But this new generation of machines goes further. Laser cutters can slice through paper, exactly like the Cricut, then turn around and cut the same shape out of a plate of steel. With automated milling machines, creating precise and intricate metal bits are a matter of dull routine. Either technique will let you build custom circuit boards; it's simply a matter of removing the unwanted copper. And you can buy any of those machines for less than the price of a car.

I spoke to Cricut CEO Ashish Arora about the company’s plans. Arora sees Cricut as more of a “platform company” than only a cutting machine for scrapbookers. The idea is to make people feel like they made it -- and Arora views the maker movement as a new kind of industrial revolution. But as these devices become both more accessible and more approachable, the trend goes beyond hackerspaces filled with young men sporting fancy mustaches. A traditional cutting machine has a ton of different settings for pressure and is rather complicated to use.

The Cricut team spends more time and resources developing software than hardware. Getting the UX to where I merely upload an SVG and make a few clicks on the iPad took a lot of developer and designer labor -- months, in fact.

If you make the product really accessible, the more involved stuff follows. Personally, I could care less about scrapbooking (I even quit Facebook), but as a kid I loved putting together 3D dinosaur bone models. Now you can plot those out in 3D on Autodesk and cut the model out of 2D shapes. Arora noted that a lot of recent uptake for the device has been in schools and in the arts community. He also mentioned that people have cut all kinds of different materials and even small replacement automotive parts.

Arora has a humble mission: “Like computer printers revolutionized desktop printing, I want to revolutionize desktop manufacturing.” For now, $299 lets your kid make a mess of your house with paper scraps.

Economic impact

Eminem Universal Studios and Dreamworks LLC

A robot replaced B-Rabbit, Eminem's character in "8 Mile," long ago.

Right now, most of the things we use were manufactured in China or other “low-cost countries." Anything that is still made in the United States or in developed countries already relies on a heavy amount of automation. The job that Eminem had in "8 Mile" has long been computerized and roboticized.

But in an era of cheap robotic manufacturing, when anyone can pay $300 for a digital cutting/plotting machine, will the next step be to manufacture where your net material and energy costs are lowest (including shipping)? If this stuff continues to develop, maybe manufacturing moves to my living room and I don’t bother with the mall. I literally stand in front of my PS4 and scan, then have my fabric synthesized by my 3D printer, cut by my Cricut machine, and stitched by my robotic sewing machine while I play video games. I can't wait.