Will 3D printing usher in the post-scarcity economy?

The game of Minecraft has what is called a “Creative Mode,” which is a virtual world of unlimited resources, where players can create objects with no concern for the scarcity of raw materials. You can make whatever you like, without using any resources. That’s the opposite of the real world–as it exists today–where businesses and people compete for increasingly scarce resources. In today’s economy, when you make something, that’s one less of it.

but what if our world could become more like Minecraft’s Creative Mode, and we could just tell a machine to create whatever we require, with no regard to availability of resources? A world where we don’t have to dredge material out of the earth, manufacture it into a product with other materials, and then transport it to the customer somewhere else in the world? This kind of world, this economy, is what is often called a post-scarcity economy–no more scarcity of resources.

Sounds like an impossible dream, but it’s entirely possible that in the future the real world may actually be more like Minecraft, thanks to 3D printing. If you want something, you make it. This is the theory proposed by this episode of the Idea Channel, in the video above. It is a world enabled by 3D printing, where creativity rules and materials are nearly unlimited.

I say nearly unlimited because a 3D printer still needs to be fed raw materials. And these materials are finite. The Idea Channel episode’s host admits this, but makes the point that according to Moore’s Law, it will get cheaper and cheaper as time goes on. Sorry, but that’s actually not the correct application of Moore’s Law — certainly 3D printers will get less and less expensive, according to Moore’s Law, but raw materials are something else entirely. Look at oil for instance, or gold, or any raw material–they are all more expensive than they used to be. Raw materials are not computer technology and Moore’s Law does not apply.

I do see a path for using less resources, and that is the process of additive manufacturing, which is what 3D printing is. Rather than starting out with a hunk of material and cutting away at it (subtractive manufacturing), a 3D printer only uses what is required to build the object, and no more. It’s incredibly efficient. We will use considerably less material, and energy, because of that. So it’s true that 3D printing could herald a “post-scarcity” economy, but certainly not an “unlimited resources” economy.

But someday, we may be able to make things out of thin air, so to speak. Perhaps in the future we will be able to rearrange atoms and create any material we wish, assembled into whatever we desire. Star Trek. Until then, we have decades or centuries of simply being more efficient.

Interesting video though.

  • su your brain

    Millions of tons of aluminum, steel, plastics, and other materials including gold, are trapped in landfills all over the country. We just haven’t reached the point to where these materials are economically feasible to mine, and environmentally friendly to process. So there is no shortage of materials, only a shortage of cheap materials!

  • Too true, there are plenty of resources but it costs money to process it! And it also costs money to set up a recycling program…so a lot of the time people don’t bother.

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