Printing the Economy in 3D

Guest Post by Patrick Burke

Virginia Tech faculty, Dr. Timothy Long and Dr. Chris Williams held an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit on the topic of 3D printing on January 26th, 2015. When many people think of 3D printing, we begin to think of science fiction shows based in space. We think of replicators creating food and other products out of thin air. Although it may not be “out of thin air”, it is very close. Being able to go to your kitchen, realize you are missing the pot that you need to cook dinner and then pressing a button to have it created for you in the very room is not too far away. But small-scale printing isn’t the only future for 3D printing, potentially entire buildings could be, and have been, made. One such example is a 6-story building in Shanghai that was built using a 20 feet tall, 33 feet wide, and 132 feet long 3D printer which manufactured the pieces offsite and were then shipped in and pieced together.

A major issue facing 3D printers, which was brought up in the AMA, was the printing of multiple materials for a single object and the conflict created by this. Melting points, warping, and other such concerns are preventing printing of products that, for example, have both ceramic and metal components. For now, 3D printed objects of that nature will have to settle for being produced separately and then pieced together afterwards. However, there is some promising work being done by one firm in Palo Alto, California by the Xerox PARC research center where they have designed a way using silver “inks” to print circuitry with the product. They believe that products such as 3D-printed phones are only a few years away at most.

So what does all of this mean economy-wise? How will this affect industry, employment, and the consumer? It could be reasonably assumed that this is all great news for the consumer because they no longer have to have a company make a product for them. They can get the raw materials sent to them and have their printer make the object; maybe 30 years from now even complex things such as computers could be made right in one’s living room. For industries, especially manufacturing, this could mean that products are made more accurately, quicker, and with less need for laborers. So 3D printing could mean good things for industry as well – at least until printers are so sophisticated that there is a miniature factory in every household, then even some industries would begin to suffer.

The largest impact could possibly be on employment and what will soon be seen as “middlemen jobs”. Right now the process of manufacturing and consuming a product goes as such: raw materials are gathered, manufactured, products are distributed, bought at a store, and then consumed by the customer. With 3D printing, the supply chain could change to raw materials are gathered, those materials are bought by the customer and put into a printer, and then printed at the customer’s home. Those employed in the first version of the supply chain, such as the manufacturers or those who worked in stores, would suffer greatly as there would be less need for them. This prediction, however, is most likely many years, maybe decades, away, but once this technology is embraced by manufacturing, those on assembly lines will be hit first once they are replaced by 3D printers. Manufacturing jobs may move back to the United States, but only because factories will not have to employ laborers and it will save on shipping costs.

As it is for most upcoming technologies, there will be both good and bad effects. Certain types of jobs may disappear in the future, but products will also become cheaper, more accurately produced, and even some objects that had previously been thought impossible to build may become a reality.

 

Reference:

Krassenstein, Brian. “Virginia Tech Professors Provide Incredible Insight into the Future of 3D Printable Materials via Reddit AMA”. 3D Print. 3D Printing/3D Printing Materials, January 27th, 2015. <http://3dprint.com/39033/3d-printing-materials-reddit/>

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