3D Printed Gun, Robots, and the future of food pricing

Recently there’s been a company based here in Austin Texas called Defense Distributed, which has been garnering a lot of attention. This is due to the fact that first, they developed a 3D printed magazine for an AR15. Then the decided to develop 3D printed versions of portions of the gun itself. These parts are being printed in plastic, so it seems unlikely that a plastic gun would work right? Well, the lower receiver for the AR15 can survive shooting 600 rounds. That’s a big deal. The first version was able to shoot one, the second only 7. As of yesterday they released a fully printable handgun. Due to restrictions in the US gun code a gun must have a certain minimum weight of metal to be detectable by metal detectors (125g). I think that this will have major ramifications – I’m not even talking about gun rights, or gun ownership or gun whatever. I’ll discuss those in a later post. Below is a video of the “Liberator” in action.

How is this a big deal in other ways than just Gun rights? Well, several months ago a book came out called “Race Against the Machine” which argues that we need to figure out how to work with robots and computers in an effective way to maximize the returns for both workers and for the owners of the computer/robots. One of these robots they discuss is a $25k robot called Baxter. This robot is extremely easy to program and control. It offers a lot of the capabilities that a low skill employee could offer and more than many expensive robots. In fact we’re seeing this in re-shoring efforts from companies like Tesla and Apple. They won’t be bringing back the old school manufacturing jobs. There will only be technician jobs related to fixing broken equipment, which will be significantly fewer jobs. Even if Baxter only lasts 3 years, it more than paid for itself in being able to operate for 24/7 for 25k in total rather than paying four people more than that each year.

Add in the capability for people to download  designs for guns and many other things from Thingiverse which can be printed from home and how cheap it is to send designs to companies like Shapeways – where you can print in metal, these changes are going to radically change our current manufacturing infrastructure and distribution system. We aren’t prepared for this and it’s going to reduce the number of low end jobs in existence.

Which brings me to the next point. Food prices are high. When people can’t feed themselves there are riots and revolts. We’ve seen this twice already in the past 5 years and we’re poised for more violence by August of this year. According to a study published two years ago food prices are near the threshold level of the Arab Spring. If these prices are still as high as predicted then we could see some serious issues in the next few years unless we radically begin rethinking our economic models.

We’ll be seeing massive disruption and opportunities in the manufacturing space. This will likely have massive ramifications on our supply chain, which has huge numbers of employees. The ability to print your own cheap plastic products could impact toy sales and the retail industry.

Is this bound to happen, no, certainly not. However, 3D Printers are now available for sale at Staples for $1,300 prebuilt, they’ve come pretty close to mainstream. The next step are going to be more advanced printers that are able to print faster, cool faster, print more complex designs with less structure, and eventually we might be able to print metal products on a printer that costs $1300. A lot of people won’t want to do this, but there will be enough where it could have a serious impact on the economy.

What do you think? Am I overreacting?