We did the Industrial Revolution in history at school when I was 13 or 14. The subject has a notorious reputation for being dull (Jethro Tull, seed drills, etc), and it was not exactly thrilling, but I had a brilliant teacher who could make most subjects tolerable. Looking back, though, and considering history more generally you start to understand why people pay so much attention to it, what with it providing the foundations for the modern world, etc. You also wonder about the extent to which people realized at the time the kind of changes they were living through, and whether we would recognise such a revolution if it was happening to us. However, what with the breathless excitement about just about everything in the media, social media, the blogosphere, etc, it seems we’re being warned about revolutions pretty much constantly (and that’s ignoring the actual political revolutions that seem to be happening on a daily basis in the Middle East – go protesters!).

To cut a long preamble short, one of the things that seems to be a genuine cause for excitement is 3D printing. In case you’ve not heard of this before, imagine a printer that instead of depositing ink, deposits a thin layer of plastic or metal, then goes back and puts another layer on top again and again until it’s built up an object. The shape can be adjusted between layers such that you can end up with just about any solid shape imaginable. The Economist says, making this technology cost effective (and it’s already competitive with regular manufacturing technologies for making smallish amounts of a product) could bring about a complete change in the way we acquire all sorts of goods. It would also dramatically democratize production, because a) anyone with a 3D printer would be able to download designs for just about any product and print one off at home, and b) anyone with design software and a printer could start inventing and prototyping their own products at miniscule costs compared to current processes. In fact, prices for 3D printers are already coming down fast and there are already lots of small businesses that use them. It’s not inconceivable that there will be models for the home in the next, say, 15 years. They are also being developed to utilise a broader range of materials, allowing for more and more types of products to come out of them.

It’s difficult even to know where to begin to think of all the things you could do with one of these devices. Fortunately, Boing Boing has been utterly obsessed with them for a couple of years now, and has a vast back catalogue of posts about them. The coolest concept of all is probably the self-replicating 3D printer: a device capable of manufacturing all the components to make a new version of itself. Once these things become self-aware, we are probably all doomed. But it will be fun to watch the destruction.