Joe Atikian is the author of Industrial Shift: The Structure of the New World Economy.
There are a lot of hyped-up threats and promises circulating these days about the potential impacts of 3-D printing. But the impacts are not as decisive as they may seem.
3-D printing applies digital technology to solve a range of stubborn small-scale manufacturing problems. It can already make a custom-fitted prosthesis for an amputee child in a war-torn country or replicate a 1960s NASA rocket nozzle whose original designs were lost. It is also touted as a looming replacement for mass-produced metal and plastic fabrication methods.
The widely subscribed Trade Talks podcast has recently mused that 3-D printing might pose a threat to world trade. The idea is that car parts, for example, can be printed locally instead of being shipped from overseas.
Meanwhile, the Harvard Business Review has called 3-D printing a revolution at its tipping point, a technology that confronts businesses with strategic questions. A 2015 article “confidently expects” fully automated large-scale printing systems will exist within five years. That day has not yet arrived.
Compared with cars, 3-D printers are moving at a snail’s pace. Cars almost completely displaced horses in New York within the decade leading up to the First World War. In contrast, 3-D printers have been used in industry since about 1980 and, over the ensuing 40 years, they have displaced virtually nothing.
The hearing-aid industry stands as a rare exception, quickly adopting 3-D to replace the moulded shells that carry their tiny electronic components. But even though some mould makers are out of a job, most workers in the industry are still there, while others have been added. Audiologists still test patients’ hearing. Technicians still fit the devices for each patient. And a new subindustry has sprouted in making 3-D printers and the software that scans the human ear and prints the perfectly customized shell. Instead of reducing the total number of workers, it’s more likely that 3-D printing of hearing aids has added jobs while saving time and resulting in a more comfortable device for the patient.
Part of the non-revolution in 3-D printing is due to the nature of the products it can make: dumb products. These are the shells or cases that hold the smaller smart parts such as computer chips and circuit boards, amplifiers and speakers. Think of a smartphone. The phone’s outer shell or case is nothing more than a dumb piece of metal or plastic, and it’s usually fairly cheap compared with the smart parts. Inside the phone’s shell, the processors, memory chips, sensors, batteries and screen are all still there, and still expensive, no matter how the shell was made.
The shell might be cheaper to make, but it might not. The labour cost saved from manual mould-making can be entirely offset by the high cost of printers, scanners and software. There is no doubt that printed parts are better in some ways, such as accuracy and rapid design, but none of this is revolutionary. A 3-D printed shell has virtually no effect on the rest of the phone compared with a shell that was moulded or stamped in the traditional way.
The same principle applies to 3-D printed houses or boats as it does to smartphones. A few builders claim that a house can be made using a gigantic 3-D printer, but in reality, it’s mostly the house’s outer shell. The printer can pour a continuous line of concrete to make the foundation or walls, but people don’t live in empty concrete shells. A house, as with a phone, is mostly made up of a wide array of more interesting parts, such as windows and doors, cabinets and fixtures, electrical and plumbing systems, tiles and glass, paint and wallpaper, floors and carpets. These are where most of the labour applies and where most of the cost comes from.
When people talk about the 3-D printing revolution in housing, the tone suggests excess hype, as opposed to the facts on the ground that only amount to incremental improvement. This technology represents no more of a job-killing revolution than the robotic automation that was supposed to threaten jobs during the previous hype cycle in this sector.
House builders have not just stood pat with traditional methods over the past few decades, and indeed their technological advances have stirred up fear of job displacement. Formed concrete and uniform blocks replaced hand-stacked stone foundations. Prefabricated walls and roof trusses moved framing work into automated factories. An entire house kit might even arrive at a building site on a single truck. Nearly every hand-held tool is now electrically driven and cordless. And yet, even with all of these labour-saving advances, construction jobs have grown virtually non-stop. So if 3-D printing does end up taking over part of the housing construction industry, its impact on jobs is once again likely to be as muted as the previous advances were.
There is no doubt 3-D printing has made enormous strides even in extremely difficult products such as jet-fuel nozzles. It also enables cross-border data flow that can skirt the need for physical shipments. Nevertheless, no previously existing industry has stood still and passively waited to be disrupted. Today’s automated manufacturers already employ vastly more foresight and technical innovation than the horsemen displaced by cars early in the 20th century and, yes, 3-D printers are included in the mix.