Over the past few years I’ve heard some propose that 3D printers may “bring back jobs”.
I’m thinking this really isn’t a thing that will happen.
With the introduction of low-cost Asian manufacturing years ago, large numbers of manufacturing operations relocated from the West to Asia to save on costs and enable rapid scale up.
It turned out to be an interesting bargain: Western economies largely switched from primarily manufacturing enterprises to more service-based business, and they were helped by the availability of lower-cost manufactured goods from overseas.
But some within Western economies were unable to or chose not to switch to service-based businesses, and have felt some pain ever since. Thus among some there is a yearning to somehow restore the manufacturing industry.
When desktop 3D printers emerged a few years ago, some felt these curious machines could power a resurgence of Western manufacturing and perhaps recover some of the previous manufacturing base.
As things have played out, it’s become clear that notion is not going to happen for a bunch of reasons.
I suspect the origin of the thinking came from the then predicted rise of consumer 3D printing, in which the “power of manufacturing” was somehow going to be placed directly in the hands of the consumer.
Everyone is a maker, they said. You can make anything, they said.
And that making ability somehow translated into “generic manufacturing power” that was misapplied to the worldwide manufacturing scenario.
Well, it wasn’t exactly true. Yes, technically anything could be made, but somehow it was forgotten that complex (or in some cases proprietary) 3D designs are required to “make anything”. These designs don’t fall out of trees; they are carefully made by highly trained people who engineer them.
Engineers and designers spend many years learning the skills to do this; it is illogical to assume the general public would be able to do the same – as the majority has already chosen not to obtain that training. They have other skills for other industries.
3D printers are not great for manufacturing in any case: they are slow and expensive per print, as compared to traditional manufacturing. Thus they currently sit in the prototyping or low-volume manufacturing sectors.
The other factor to consider is that if 3D printers could enable the West to do things, what would stop Asian operations to do the same with the same machines? In fact, there are quite a few very competent manufacturers of 3D printers, both desktop and industrial located in China, Japan, Korea and other Asian locations where their products are widely used. They are so successful that many of them now seek entry into Western markets.
If East and West both have the same 3D printing technology, tell me how 3D printers are going to “bring back jobs”? Aside from those making the 3D printers themselves, the playing field appears about the same as it was prior to 3D printers.
If there is a way to “bring back” manufacturing jobs, I’m not sure 3D printers are going to be the way to do this, at least not yet.
I do know that several key 3D printer manufacturers are now focusing on developing high speed, high volume 3D printers specifically to address large-scale manufacturing needs. If they’re successful, then Western businesses may gain access to them.
But so will those in Asia.