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More Self-Sufficient Cities in a 3D Printing World

Neal Peirce / Apr 06 2013

For Release Sunday, April 7, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceThere has been plenty of hype recently about the wonders of three dimensional printing – a fast-emerging technology that may be able to reproduce any object from an instrument for sublime music (a Stradivarius violin) to a potential weapon of death (a bullet-firing gun).

But 3D printing machines can do more than produce objects. They could change the future of the world’s cities, perhaps dramatically. With 3D, cities may well once again be the world’s manufacturing workshops.

In a sense, 3D manufacturing could take us back even further – to echoes of village life in the pre-industrial era, when blacksmiths or seamstresses or carpenters created much of what was needed locally and towns were far more self-sufficient.

How could today’s 3D printing, still in its infancy, actually produce such startling change? And trigger change as profound as the steam engine, the light bulb, atomic energy, the microchip?

I rely on research by Banning Garrett, senior fellow for innovation and global trends at the Atlantic Council, by Thomas Campbell of Virginia Tech, by analysts at the National Defense University and several of their colleagues.

They show how once there’s a computer file summarizing the 3D layers necessary to create any object – from a wrench to an iPhone – the file can be transferred to a sophisticated printer a few feet away, or by Internet around the world, in seconds. The printer creates the object by layering on the varied materials, one thin layer at a time.

3D printing creates its final product in one process – unlike conventional manufacturing which often demands extensive casting, forming and molding and assembling up to thousands of parts, some from distant locations.

That means products can be printed on demand, obviating large inventories, or waiting for a missing part to be delivered from afar. A single manufacturer can print a huge range of products. Increasingly, today’s production and distribution of products could be de-globalized.

This could spell big cutbacks in massive container ships and their ports, together with fuel-guzzling truck rigs crisscrossing continents. The United States’ heavy reliance on overseas manufacturing, especially from China, could be cut back dramatically. The carbon footprint of today’s manufacturing and transport could be reduced substantially. 3D involves dramatically reduced waste and use of toxic materials in manufacturing and can ease the demand for such nonrenewable resources as rare earth minerals.

The price of 3D printers has dropped so dramatically than any inventor with an idea can immediately design it, produce it, test until satisfied, and then (if the product is a good one) start selling units. And then get instant customer feedback.

“Inventor, entrepreneur, manufacturer, and marketer – they can all be in one person,” notes Garrett.

The model lends itself exquisitely to urban settings, in which creative people typically congregate in coffee shops, exchange ideas – and if they need some extra skills, can pick them up at a local university.

The 3D printing plans may become as ubiquitous as the “apps” today’s young people so effortlessly produce and circulate.

With 3D, as contrasted to mass manufacturing, the customer becomes part of the process. And products improve: For example, shoes with an image the customer picks and an insole that fits exactly.

In disasters such as Katrina and Sandy, when all sorts of equipment and machinery breaks down, 3D practitioners can print out spare parts or scan a broken item, fix the image, and then reproduce it – a huge advance in recovery steps.

Garrett describes an especially appealing 21st-century 3D-enabled vision: A far more decentralized, resilient world in which many products are made (and can be customized) locally. Foods are produced locally with vertical farms, even 3D meat (built up from cell cultures of animals.) If a person needs a new liver, it can be using his own cells.

And with 3D’s efficiency and lack of waste, dependence on materials such as steel and titanium can be radically reduced. Complementing that saving model, energy can harvested from wind and solar, replacing fuels that today are delivered hundreds if not thousands of miles distant.

Yet while a 3D world can be decentralized and thus especially resilient, Garrett adds that people will remain connected to the world economy – the global village the Internet provides, with the best ideas (and 3D files) flowing in from near and far.

One has to like this glowing vision – even though 3D threatens, inevitably, dramatic numbers of routine factory jobs (except, perhaps, in plants producing standardized items in vast numbers). Other downsides: 3D will likely make it easier to counterfeit goods and perhaps to steal intellectual property.

Still, there’s rarely been a disruptive technology with such positive implications for the welfare and progress of the cities and surrounding regions destined to be mankind’s home through this century and beyond.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Neal Peirce
    Posted April 6, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    To Readers:

    A friend has brought this very interesting TED talk on 3D construction to my attention. If the topic interests you, be sure to check this out: /lisa_harouni_a_primer_on_3d_printing.html

  2. Posted April 13, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    The possibilities 3D printing has opened up is intriguing. My hope is that we will continue to see more of this infrastructure integrated into our cities. Providing a platform for enabling more people to innovate and manufacture will have an enormous impact. The recent Detroit Future City Plan ( explored the idea of Live-Make neighborhoods. This is a fascinating concept. As industry becomes cleaner, quieter, and the footprint smaller, integrating into mixed-use begins to make it more acceptable to include in mixed-use and ultimately access to a wider array of jobs. Barcelona has also been putting a similar initiative into action ( . They have opened FabLabs in various neighborhoods to enable their citizens’ innovation and establish locally based manufacturing. The Atlantic had an informative event on the Future of Manufacturing. One session is particular worth watching as it relates to this topic is ” “Designing the Future: the Effects of Technology on Industry” ” All of them can be found here. The debate explores both 3D printing and traditional manufacturing.

  3. Posted April 14, 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I wrote about the potential environmental implications of 3D printing here ( and pondered the possibility of both positive and negative impacts. My main concern is that, while there are indeed some great environmental (and urban) advantages, the growth of 3D printers may also enable a new degree of consumerism, enabled by the greater ease with which all kinds of objects will be available.

  4. Patrick McCleery
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink


    I’ve had many of the same ideas regarding 3d printing and cities in general. We are on the verge of some revolutionary changes:

    -3d printing will soon allow us to manufacture anything locally
    -we can obtain energy from renewable sources like wind, water, and solar at a cost comparable to or equal to the cost of the system we have now
    -grey water recycling and rainwater collection can provide a sustainable source of water
    -we can obtain 99% of all needed materials from recycling. We are already able to extract the rare earths from electronics for indefinite re-use.
    -if it is not possible to recycle something, we can find a substitute material which is essentially inexhaustible (such as iron)
    -mass transit can allow us to move people more quickly, more safely, and at a far lower cost than cars
    -smart urbanism can, over time, lead to a higher quality of life and lower per capita resource use by placing frequently accessed destinations within walking distance of residences
    -food can be grown in large urban greenhouses using hydroponics. This greatly reduces the amount of water needed and eliminates the need for transportation, storage, packaging, and refrigeration. Plastic packaging contains many harmful chemicals which can cause cancer and infertility among other ill effects.

    3d printing will also revolutionize the economy and governance. You can bet that the corporations will fight the universal 3d printer for the home; they will do everything they can to prevent that from becoming reality.

  5. Patrick McCleery
    Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to mention, entire cities could one day be built with large 3d printers designed to print buildings. 3d printers open up many exciting design possibilities in the realm of architecture; it’s possible to do things with 3d printers that would be too expensive with conventional construction techniques. One company claims that their printer will be capable of printing a two story house in less than 24 hours.