Is making local the way to go?

“Print me a home” is the headline in an Economist article in its look ahead, ‘The World in 2017’ … Additive manufacturing processes (or 3D printing as it used to be known) is now spreading rapidly worldwide. Jewellery and metal – so old hat (and we can print you a hat, too!) Now it’s whole buildings.

The article references Winsun, a Chinese company, that has printed everything from public toilets to an apartment block. And in Massa Lombardam, east of Bologna in Italy, an Italian group called WASP has created a 12-metre tall 3D printer to build an entire village as a technology centre –  showcasing how 3D technology can be used to print low-cost buildings with sustainable materials. This includes the ancient material adobe (earth mixed with organic material). (We used to live in a 650-year old timber-frame house made from clay and straw – timber and labour were more plentiful then … )

US company Morris Technologies (part of GE Aviation) has been printing jet engine parts for four years – and I recently saw a demonstration of 3D printing by the engineering giant GKN – printing a titanium bracket for use in an Airbus wing. Zero waste and a massive reduction in the quantity of material needed.

So how we can make use of this in small town economies? Perhaps we can find some new materials makers to to set up shop, design and print their own products. Or perhaps soon we can go online, select a design of something we want (a mug or picture frame or wall bracket or almost anything else), download the design onto a dongle and pop into our local maker shop for a one-off production.

Sound crazy? If they can print houses, maybe not. And it’ll call for a different kind of shop – back to making and selling, rather than just the final cog in a giant distribution chain … Now, where’s my old Meccano set …