There's no doubt that cities have major advantages over small towns - they have larger numbers of educated citizens, greater wealth and capacities for production, and louder voices in policy discussions. With the increased ease of communication and collaboration online in the past few years, though, it's possible that we're also headed towards a future where the barriers to major production of high-quality products are also lower.
With that in mind, could 3-D printing bring more balance to the highly urbanized American economy?
Well, first we have to be clear on what 3-D printing is. The Why Files gives a terrific, succinct definition:
A 3-D printer builds up objects layer by layer, using various methods to deposit and harden the “ink” where it is needed. Many materials, including plastic, metal, ceramic and even human cells, can now be printed, based on instructions from computer-assisted design (CAD) programs.
In other words, a personal printer that can do what we could previously only imagine - making items that jump out of the page. At this point, 3-D printers are used mostly for small parts of larger machines, as a recent NPR story on gun parts revealed. A recent Kickstarter listed the "Buccaneer" 3-D printer at $347. The Cube 3-D printer above is still in the $1000+ range.
Despite its promise, there are still some major problems with 3-D printing that remain to be addressed (prohibitive costs, strength of product, inaccessible software). But I can remember a time when personal scanners were over $1000, producing mediocre scans, and incredibly tough to communicate with, so we should expect this technology to be highly affordable and accessible within the next 3-5 years, if not sooner.
As 3-D printers get cheaper and stronger, they could very well open more entry points to an increasingly decentralized economy. A man in South Africa has already collaborated with a man in Washington to build prosthetic fingers.
It's really not a matter of if, but when.