Last summer we contemplated the idea that China could be harmed by 3D printing, based on a post in Forbes. The idea was that legions of inexpensive Asian workers who've been displacing expensive North American workers would have the tables turned when 3D printing takes hold in North America, permitting consumers to simply print their own stuff.
We predicted some level of that effect would eventually occur, but not anytime soon. Now we see another view from Innovation News Daily, who say:
Undoubtedly, 3-D printing will profoundly affect how consumers obtain the objects they desire. But projections about 3-D printing replacing all manufacturing ignore how economies of scale help bring down the cost of the many complex raw materials used in the most highly coveted products. A 3-D printer may excrete a great plastic mug or metallic ring, but until they can spit out an iPad or a car, most traditional factories won't go anywhere.
This is absolutely correct; true consumer products, other than basic, mono-material items have yet to emerge from today's replicators. We're optimistic that developments will eventually make this possible, to some degree. Why? Because engineers are busily and continually working on improving the 3D print experience by developing the ability to print in color, print multiple materials with different properties and even print electronics. No, it can't be practically done yet. But it's all being deeply investigated.
But what about economies of scale? That's true, individual 3D printers will always be more expensive to produce a given item than a mass production operation - with one assumption: all items are the same. When the world begins to prefer exact fits with extreme customization, we'll see a growing niche in personally printed products.
However, if this vision comes to pass there will be decreased need for both Asian and North American factory workers. Time to train more designers?