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As COVID-19 surges, 3D printing is having a moment

As I write, the COVID-19 contract dies, producing a large-scale 3D printer for the Pentagon. The last of the aluminum plates on the C-16 model are crushed and destroyed — as if to prove that death is permanent, this too is a loss, for the model’s forever.

The Pentagon contract came at a point when 3D printers seemed about to explode in all directions, becoming, within a year or two, commonplace household objects. Carbon straightens out the production of metal parts.

Dyson makes a new upright personal washer and dryer that’s a fraction of the cost of prior models, and will be even cheaper a few years down the road. Cubify delivers cartridges of HP ink to your machine of choice. Desktop 3D printers sell for under $1,000.

At the same time, prices and capabilities are falling all around the world. Most lower-end machines, including those from MakerBot, already cost in the low-teens. In Thailand, a tiny desktop factory produces a thousand 3D printers a month. And there’s even more competition: China’s device makers are moving in on European market share.

So here’s what’s happening. If you’re cutting down trees to produce an object, by design, you’re moving the cost of production down. If you’re cutting down trees to make a mold for that object, by design, you’re moving the cost of production up.

We’re taking two different sets of costs — each meaning different things — and arriving at very different answers. My theory, based on how long it takes to make a novel with 3D printing versus one with wood, is that you can think of 3D printing as substituting carbon-based energy for wood, while the work to be done replacing wood with synthetic petroleum is proving to be a harder, more expensive proposition. But it’s hard to know whether that’s right or not, and that’s why the real opportunity comes once the social contract changes enough to permit a wide swath of 3D printing.

The broader question is “How are we going to make these things?” In the past, when we wanted something, we sent it to a factory, took it out, and sent it in again. Now people are thinking: If we need something now, could we have it made, locally, and shipped in?

The result is that if you’re a manufacturer, the future is better than it’s ever been. Our power needs have fallen, our greenhouse gas emissions are falling, and automation can do a lot of that work. But once we turn into a consumer society, things get a lot more complex.

That’s where the COVID-19 contract comes in. The COVID is a tankable American M-16. It is, presumably, still being built. But there are other models, with other characteristics. We can import weapons by sea and land, bypassing the current tax on shipping oil by sea. Why shouldn’t it be possible to mail components?

There are numerous applications, all yet to be considered, including:

A 3D drone. A quadcopter that can be customized for various military missions.

A Glasses-on-Wheels

Increasingly, everyone is learning a lot from each other. And we’re learning what we need.

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