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Goldmark: Get ready for the future with 3-D printing

A model made using a photopolymer printing system

A model made using a photopolymer printing system at the International Manufacturing Conference & Expo in downtown Cleveland. The system takes a CAD drawn model and transfers it to a printer which layer by layer creates a 3D model using photo polymer acrylic. (Feb. 14, 2012) Credit: AP

In 1820, Col. Robert Johnson stood on the courthouse steps in Salem, N.J., and astonished an anxious crowd by . . . eating a tomato.

In those days the "love apple," as it was called, was believed to be poisonous. It was mostly grown as an ornamental plant. Johnson suffered no ill effects, and before long everyone was eating tomatoes.

It's hard to spot a trend before it happens, and trends in technology are harder to decipher and predict than eating habits. But on our horizon is one powerful new technology, still in its birth pangs, that will revolutionize large parts of our production economy. It's called 3-D printing. It's just starting to be talked about more in the media now; I learned about it from a friend who is advising one of the young companies in the field. Enthusiasts say this is coming at us like a freight train -- but, in its early days, it looks very hard to me to tell how fast this train is moving.

Just as a normal printer or copier reproduces and prints a two-dimensional copy of a piece of paper placed in it or sent to it, a 3-D printer will reproduce a three-dimensional copy of an object that is placed in it or sent to it.

The thought alone startles, doesn't it? Say I'm in California and you're in Massapequa. And I send you a valve to replace the one in your car that broke; or a pair of corrective eyeglasses customized to your specifications, when all you've given me is the prescription; or -- yes, this is being explored -- they transmit a body organ to replace one of yours that is defective. Actually, in that last case they'll probably send it to the hospital where you're being treated (I have to assume it'll be a good long while before we're ready for install-it-yourself body organ replacements).

We are in the early days of 3-D printing, which is also known as "additive manufacturing." These machines are still expensive; some cost as much as $10,000, although much cheaper models are starting to appear. They reproduce things inconsistently. And most of them build only plastic objects -- although labs and universities are beginning to stretch the envelope in this respect. A team at the University of Glasgow developed a 3-D printer that could produce chemical compounds, including some new ones never created before.

Think of where this may ultimately lead. What happens to the factory or the assembly line? What happens to the comparative advantage of China and other emerging countries where cheap labor and manufacturing underpin their entire economies? What happens to manufacturing jobs period, in any country, if all a computer operator has to do is input the specs of the desired item to a 3-D replicator?

Like the personal computer, which three decades ago was an experimental specialty object for advanced individual users, the 3-D printer, when it comes of age, is likely to disrupt our existing industrial economy along many dimensions. It will decimate large parts of the transportation industry. It will radically change retailing. It is more efficient than traditional manufacturing, which commonly functions through the removal of material -- by drilling, cutting, or otherwise carving it away; 3-D printing lays down successive layers of only what is needed to build up the object and is thus inherently less wasteful. In a resource-starved planet, this will make a large difference.

3-D printing will spell the end of inventory as we know it. And at the most basic level, it will change the meaning and operation of that most fundamental law of business: economies of scale.

It'll be a while before you or I buy one of these. And, frankly, I don't know if "around the corner" means in three years or 10. But it's not too early for Walmart, or the Teamsters, to start worrying.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.