The Economist had a cover story on the emergence of three-dimensional printing, with the prediction that it will transform manufacturing (“Print me a Stradivarius“)
3D printing is a technology that allows people to transform digital designs into products (see video below). Products are built by progressively adding material, one layer at a time: hence the technology’s other name, additive manufacturing. The technology itself is not new, but the cost of such machines has gone down significantly in recent years.
The Economist is taking a fairly futuristic view of this technology:
THE industrial revolution of the late 18th century made possible the mass production of goods, thereby creating economies of scale which changed the economy—and society—in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology has emerged which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.
While we all like to wax poetics on the ability to eliminate large scale manufacturing, I have to admit that I find the logic above dubious at best. My guess is that the authors wanted to write that this technology makes it as cheap to create a single item, as it is to produce thousands, using the same technology. Yet, I would argue that given that the printing machine is not dedicated to a single product, one should be able to optimize the process (while using other resources) such that the cost per unit is lower when producing thousands. In other words, while one can reduce the impact of scale economies, I am doubtful if one can completely undermines economics of scale.
But, there are clear advantages for this type of manufacturing, from eliminating the need to set up production lines to the reduction in the waste of raw material. It also allows for the creation of shapes that are expensive or difficult to make in traditional manufacturing. It can get us as close as we have even been to the idea of “markets-of-one”. I also expect it to increase the rate of innovation since is it much easier and cheaper to have a working model using this technology than more conventional methods.
Again, some people predict that the impact will go far beyond:
Others maintain that, by reducing the need for factory workers, 3D printing will undermine the advantage of low-cost, low-wage countries and thus repatriate manufacturing capacity to the rich world. It might; but Asian manufacturers are just as well placed as anyone else to adopt the technology. And even if 3D printing does bring manufacturing back to developed countries, it may not create many jobs, since it is less labor-intensive than standard manufacturing.
I am not sure I agree with this entire statement. The advantage of this technology is the ability to produce on-demand and close to the market, per customer specification in cases in which adhering to exact (and changing) consumer specifications is valuable enough. The video describes prosthetic limbs as such market, and I agree. There are many other markets, where the exact fit and size are important and thus customers are willing to incur the additional cost (and maybe the reduction in overall quality). Will we produce laptops and pens like that – I doubt it.