Tuesday, 8 July 2014

3D Printers and Dildos

From the Spectator

Anyway, if I owned a dildo factory in Shenzhen, I’d be a worried man by now. And, totemic as they are, it’s not just dildos: all aspects of our complicated global supply chains are threatened by the 3D printing revolution. The implications of this – of being able to cut out the middleman in consumer products, as we’ve already done in services like buying books, watching films and ordering taxis – ought to temper Western assumptions that economic power will only keep shifting eastwards. And, in turn, there are less obvious social and cultural implications: the ‘two worlds’ Gill identified as ‘absolutely distinct’ can at last become one again, as artists utilise modern computer-aided design and production techniques to deindustrialise manufacturing and create cottage industries in both new and traditional crafts.

I don't know if anyone is a fan of The Big Bang Theory, but there's an episode (The Cooper/Kripke Inversion) which rather skewers the problem of 3D printers. In the episode, two of the characters realise they can make better plastic models of themselves than the ones they bought, if they go out and buy a 3D printer, and that they can make as many as they like. But this also leads to a showdown with one of the character's wives when she realises they spent $5,000 on a machine to build 3 tiny model toys.

And in this case, you might well be able to get all the dildos you want for free, but you've got to spend £1200 for the dildo-making machine. And as Lovehoney sell dildos for £10, that means making 120 dildos just to break even. You've also got to store it somewhere and maintain it. Might as well just go online, click and get a dildo sent in 48 hours.

Look at reality - an ice cream maker is about £40. It makes ice cream that's slightly cheaper than the likes of Ben and Jerry's and is better. So, why don't people own ice cream makers? Because it's a lot more hassle than sticking a tub of Ben and Jerry's in the trolley at Tesco's (even people who buy them generally end up sticking them in the back of a cupboard shortly after purchase).

I think we may see more custom manufacturing in future, where you can go online and buy goods and each good gets made differently. We currently do this with cars and laptops and Timberlake do it with some boots. But that'll still be running on machines in Shenzen or Sheffield doing it in large numbers and sending the goods out to people.


Curmudgeon said...

It might be doing it while you wait at your local Tesco, though.

The Stigler said...


Making ice cream doesn't work like that. If you're making vanilla ice cream or lemon sorbet, you have to do some cooking and cooling first. Sorbet is basically water, sugar and lemons - You heat water, lemon rind and sugar in a bowl, cook them to a syrup and then let it cool. Then you add the juice and put it in the machine for about 15 minutes. There's also the hassle of pre-freezing - you have to remember to stick the bowl in the freezer 12 hours before.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed, but two points:.

1. You can't make a proper vibrator with a 3D printer anyway, they've got batteries and an electric motor inside.)

2. Economic power is NOT shifting westwards.

Since the dawn of time it has been shifting westwards, it went from Europe to USA in early 20th century, and went from USA to Japan in late 20the century and is now drifted further west to China, and so on.

Presumably if you wind back the clock far enough, China used to be the number one economic power.

The Stigler said...


1. Indeed. That's a whole big problem with 3D printers - you can't build complex machines with them. The main use of these machines is prototyping and custom parts for small manufacturers. You need a part shaped like something, you can get it turned around very quickly.

2. Power shifts all over the place. China is going to become more powerful because it's still far behind the rest of the world. I can tell you that companies are starting to shift software work out to places like Egypt and Vietnam.

Curmudgeon said...

I think it's one of those things like self-driving cars that people say will be an economic paradigm shift but in fact doesn't turn out to be.

As you say, most manufactured goods except those of very low value are complex assemblies made out of a variety of materials. No 3D printer is ever going to be able to make those.

But, go back 25 years, and nobody would have predicted the imapct of the internet, let alone smartphones.

The Stigler said...


With everything, the question is: what's the benefit? For me, a self-driving car would allow me to put my feet up going places, which is nice, and to maybe have a drink, but it's still kinda marginal. I'm not going to get there quicker or cheaper.

The problem with comparisons of computers and 3D printers and computers is that computers are virtual. It's about moving bits of data around. And you can keep making the same size/power hardware that does more and more. And as it's all virtual, you can build complex objects of the same stuff. I don't need different physical hardware for a game as an accounting package. That's not like all the bits of a vibrator where you need to have some plastic bits and some metal bits. And to make something else, perhaps a different sort of metal. It doesn't have the same parallel.

bob said...

3d printers with the ability to print circuts and moving parts exist, they are fairly new.

You will, given time, be able to print almost any household goods with them, and more time still economically.

The Stigler said...


Sure. But it's not like you can just switch it on and say "print circuits" if you've had plastics in there previously. It's not like computers where everything's virtual. You've still got to get the right materials to print the board.

Let me know when you've got a 3D printer that can print me a network cable for less than the £1 I paid Amazon.

Curmudgeon said...

Most actual physical stuff as such is dirt-cheap nowadays anyway. What costs the money is the design input and the software, which a 3D printer can't do.

The Stigler said...



Ian B said...

I always call this the Juicer Problem, after buying my beloved a juicer for Christmas.

Two weeks of increasingly tiresome juicing, then it went in the back of the cupboard and we went back to buying cartons. Because it's easier to contract out your juicing. Which is how the economy works, and all that.

Ian B said...

It also reminds me of this toy/thingy my sister got as a youngster called Plasticraft. You had this transparent resin in two chemicals that solidified when mixed, and you made paperweights and ashtrays with it, with imbedded sea shells and other bits and bobs.

The family paperweight and ashtray demand saturated surprisingly fast.

Steven_L said...

But how patented is the tech and which shares do we buy to extract the rent?

Mark Wadsworth said...

Juicers, sandwich toasters, ice cream makers, bread makers blah blah blah, all in the back of the cupboard.

Avoid. The best kitchen gadget is a potato peeler with a swivel blade, second best is a hand held mixer stick thingy.

Not sure what this has to do with 3D printers, exactly. Or maybe in ten years time everybody will have a barely used 3D printer at the back of the cupboard?

The Stigler said...

Mark/Ian B,

The thing with juicers, ice cream makers and bread makers for most people is that like 3D printers and DIY tools it all comes down to how many times you are really going to use that thing.

We have a breadmaker and use it at least a couple of times a week. So, it makes sense to have it.

And yes, I have no doubt that some people will be dumping 3D printers in a few years after they've realised that other than making Dungeons and Dragons characters, there's no other use for them.

Kj said...

This is the whole manufacturing fallacy again. People think the economy is about making stuff. To a certain degree it is, but if you remove the complicated stuff, the durable goods, the stuff that can be reproduced by a 3D printer is such a vanishingly small part of the household economy it doesn't even show up on the radar.

ageing man said...

Kj... did you mean manufacturing fallacy or ..... manufacturing phallus ?